Friday, July 30, 2010

Slow Riding in Red Dead Redemption

The world of Red Dead Redemption is often a slow one. Its mechanics and systems reflect many of the realities people faced before the advent of widespread electricity, access to automobiles, and commercial air travel. In a medium that often measures success and failure in terms of seconds, the experience of having to spend minutes just to travel from location to location is a unique novelty that also serves to convey the game’s story and illustrate the environment.

However, RDR does not always make its players mosey, and there are certain game systems that seem to undercut its signature slowness. RDR finds itself torn between a philosophy of deliberately slow, methodical dynamics and the temptation to provide the player with instant gratification. The result is a unique synthesis of design choices that can test the player’s patience while also times indulging their desires for instant gratification.

RDR’s character movement systems illustrate the game’s emphasis in slow play. By default, tilting the control stick all the way in any direction causes John Marston to walk, whereas in most other games, a full tilt causes an avatar to run. To move any faster, the player must hold down the run button, and even then they have not reached top speed. This is only achieved when the player is actively tapping the run button while pointing Marston in the desired direction. By requiring additional action and exertion on the player’s part, RDR mimics the dynamics of the real world: walking is slow, but requires little energy while sprinting is fast, but requires a lot of energy. While the game does not go so far as to implement a fatigue system, it is more physically demanding to constantly hold or tap a button when moving. These extra requirements suggest that that moving quickly is the exceptional way of traveling, and that the game world’s concept of “normal” speed is relatively slow.

Horse travel is similarly addressed. Instead of handling like a car that happens to have four legs, RDR’s horses must be actively managed. While using a horse is much faster than travelling on foot, the player is subject to specific design choices that cap their speed. Like Marston, a horse’s default control stick movement is a slow walk. The player must virtually spur the horse into a trot with the run button, and continue spurring until the horse reaches the desired speed. Once this happens, the player must continue to put pressure on the horse by holding the run button, lest it begin to slow down. The horse’s endurance also effects the game’s overall speed, as pushing a horse too hard will only earn you a short trip through the air and onto the ground. In most games, vehicles allow the player to drive as fast as possible without having to worry about damage or fuel, but the horses in RDR enforce a slower pace.

Interacting with RDR’s flora and fauna also tends to be a measured experience. Subtle aspects of hunting and gathering plants reinforce the game’s insistence on gradual progress. Barring the occasional glitch, skinning killed animals involves watching an animation whose length varies depending on the size of the animal. In many games, killing a bear would yield a convenient item drop that could be added to your inventory by running over it. RDR forces players to examine the body, press a button to skin it, and then watch an animation before they can claim their prize. Similarly, flowers must be carefully gathered on foot and are only added to the inventory after a short communion with nature.

However, while RDR has many features that approximate the slow pace of rural life, it also has design choices that reflect the sensibilities of modern video games. Using an item such as medicine or horse pills are accessed through a menu option that instantly applies the item’s effects without so much as a canned animation. In a game that repeats the same animation even after the thousandth wolf is skinned, it is strange that we never have to stop and slow down in order to let Marston take a drink.

When the player sits down for a few rounds of poker, they have the option to skip directly to their turn without having to watch the other characters play their hands. In a game punctuated by long, philosophical conversations in even the most stressful situations, moments of leisure are oddly silent and efficiency-driven. Rather than being forced to shoot the breeze with your fellow dice players, you can continuously skip to your turn. It seems strange that one of few experiences you can rush through is a casual game of chance that is ostensibly meant to allow you to relax and take a break from life’s pressures.

What happens when RDR’s penchant for leisurely pacing meets the pressure to indulge the player’s desire to rush? The answer lies in the strange hybrid of dynamics found in the fast travel and save systems.

Like many open world games, RDR features a way to quickly move between points on the map by using narrative conceits that justify unusually fast travel. By using a camp site or a stage coach, the player can travel to a point of their choosing. While much faster than walking or riding, this method also involves some quirks that slow down the process. In order to fast travel to a certain waypoint, the player must first be outside the confines of a town or bandit hideout. Once this is completed, it is still necessary to open up the map, pick a waypoint, close the map, open the item screen, choose the camping option, choose the fast travel option, and then select the ultimate destination. Such a litany of requirements could be attributed to clumsy design, but then why is it that using an item only takes a few button presses? It seems that the game is attempting to instill a sense of deliberation even when it is allowing the player to do something frivolous. You can warp from one side of the world to the other, but you cannot do so instantly.

The save system also exhibits this mixture of forced steadiness and automatic convenience. The game auto-saves quite often and contains generous checkpoints within missions, making failure a minor inconvenience. At the same time, should the player want to manually save their game, they must go through the camping process or journey back into town and locate their specific bed. The ability to change outfits or let a few hours slip by is regulated by a system that forces the player to take a break from the immediate action, despite the fact that their progress is simultaneously being saved without any effort on their part.

RDR is a game caught between two impulses: The game attempts to simulate the slow moving, sometimes tedious nature of the Mythic West while also offering the benefits of modern, streamlined game design. This often makes the game feel capricious: RDR’s layered control scheme, wide open spaces, and moments of forced reflection contrast sharply with its auto-saving, instant items, and fast travel.

I admire the attempt to slow the player, even to the point of enforcing moments of boredom, on an intellectual level: it shows commitment to a game design philosophy that employs the medium’s unique ability to tell a story through ludic action (or in this case, in-action). However, I am sympathetic to the realistic constraints that push developers to create accessible games for players with limited time.

Ultimately, I suppose I am encountering the same problem that is embedded into Red Dead Redemption’s structure: I like the idea of a slow experience, but had the game completely embraced this philosophy, I might never have had the time to write this.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

EXP Podcast #88: Red Dead Redemption Roundup, part 1

Saddle up, amigos. It’s time to ride into one of the year’s most high-profile games: Red Dead Redemption. Published by Rockstar, Red Dead Redemption attempts to convey the feel of the Mythic West by dropping the player into an expansive, beautiful, and dangerous world. It is a highly ambitious game whose plot and game systems both deserve in-depth analysis. Because of this, we have split up our conversation. This week, we mainly discuss the game’s structure and mechanics while avoiding specific plot details. We cover topics like morality, emergent gameplay, and the viability of the Rockstar formula. As always, we’re interested to hear what you all thought, so feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- How much time did you spend on the side quests? Were they just a distraction from the main plot or did they offer you something

- Do you have any good emergent stories from your travels in New Austin? With all the angry wildlife, surly townsfolk, and wide-open spaces, strange things are bound to happen...

- Do you think the Rockstar, open world formula is a viable platform to explore other genres?

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: 39 min 36 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 26, 2010

Review: Well Contained Limbo

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Limbo.

I have to admit, I am not entirely sure I know what Limbo is about. Presumably the title refers to the mythological border between heaven and hell, a temporary space for unbaptized children to lounge about until the end of days. In which case the little boy protagonist is dead, or maybe his sister is dead, or both. Danish developers PlayDead Studios did not try to shape an overtly emotional story about siblings into the game. In fact, Limbo is the ultimate example of a tightly produced package, highly polished and seldom straying into dangerous territory. While the game is not for everyone, I have no qualms saying it is a nearly perfect experience.

Earlier today, Nels Anderson ofAbove49 posted an article titled "Why Are So Many Indie Darlings 2D Platformers?” Using Limbo as an example of this trend, Nels had this to offer as one explanatory factor: “On the pragmatic side, 2D platformers are relatively easy to develop... Opting to creating a 2D platformer removes a significant amount of risk for what almost certainly begins as a very risky proposition.” It seems evident in Limbo that PlayDead knew their limitations exactly and exploited the perhaps over-saturated genre with grace.
Each of the platform puzzles are distinct and isolated entities. When a player dies, she is deposited mere moments before the protagonist is killed. Thus, the game becomes broken up into manageable, albeit occasionally difficult, chunks of gameplay. Despite its composite nature, movement between scenes flows smoothly. In one moment the boy is in a forest, in the next a factory. The completely black and white aesthetic unifies the whole while simplifying the design process in some ways.

This is not to say developing Limbo was easy. At E3, one PlayDead developer mentioned the numerous playtests conducted to perfect the silhouettes of game assets. Each interactive object is distinguishable from the black environment without being gaudy, distracting, or unrealistic. This took time and expertise. Yet I would suggest building Limbo as a 2D platformer liberated PlayDead to apply such consideration to the game’s art and sound design.
Perhaps their biggest accomplishment is creating such a modest experience. Limbo does not shatter the status quo. Nor is it self-aware enough to make critical commentary on its genre. I would not call Limbo a risky title. Some mechanics, such as temporary gravity distortion or a worm that forces the player to move in one direction until reaching a light source, are very clever. Yet they remain secondary elements to the game, letting the atmosphere always reign supreme. They never become over-used and tedious and they are never used as a mechanical crutch. Limbo only reaches for what it knows it can accomplish, freeing itself of clutter.

The story fits this trend accordingly. The world the boy inhabits is filled with terrifying renditions of childhood experiences. Spiders become monstrous abominations and playground bullies become the murderous children from Lord of the Flies. One theory suggest these are creations of the dead protagonist as he pursues his through limbo, only to find her tending his grave, startled by his otherworldly presence. Another theory posits that both siblings are dead, victims of a car crash and a faulty tree-house, and the protagonist seeks his sister so they can move on to the afterlife together. Both theories are valid because the game never intends to decipher meaning for the player. Any such attempt would simply muddle the environments true goal: the creation of a dark, mysterious, and uncomfortable atmosphere.
Many have compared Limbo to Braid. While both are “artsy” 2D platformers, the similarities end there. While Jonathan Blow created a self-aware and narrative heavy experience, saturated with authorial meaning of his own creation, PlayDead created an atmospheric experience, knowingly subduing potential extravagance for its own benefit. While Braid is a FabergĂ© egg, Limbo is a boiled egg poached to near perfection. I think Braid is a more daring game, and perhaps more valuable one. Yet Limbo should be admired for what is is, a short, simple, and continuously enjoyable experience. If it were any longer, any more muddled with additional content, it would not be the easily consumed and commendable accomplishment PlayDead intentionally designed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

PSN Problems

I’ve been trying to give Sony my money for some time now, but they just won’t take it.

Everything started last week when I logged into the PlayStation Network to do my heroic duty by purchasing DeathSpank. Upon trying to confirm my order, I was greeted by a mysterious “80023103” error. With dread in my heart, I navigated to another menu and tried manually adding funds to my Sony “wallet.” This time I was greeted by an equally unhelpful “Funds cannot be added to your wallet at this time.”

Drastic times call for drastic measures, so I actually tried using Sony’s web interface to confirm my credit card and add funds. This yielded no results. The dread in my heart started to crystallize and slowly transformed into cynical resignation. I began to get the feeling that I wouldn’t be saving the world or grinding for loot any time soon.

A quick call to my credit card company confirmed that nothing was wrong on their end. In fact, the credit card representative told me that several $1 charges from PSN had been put on the card and then removed. This is usually a good sign, as companies tend to test the card by making small charge when you first submit your information. If the charge goes through, they clear the card for more purchases. It seems that Sony knew of my card, but simply refused to use it.

I then called up Sony’s customer service and talked to a really nice guy about my problem. After I described my issue and all the ways I had tried to fix it, he sheepishly told me that there was nothing they could do but suggest I buy pre-paid PlayStation Network cards for all my purchasing needs. He also said that many people have been having problems similar to mine since the last few firmware upgrades. Before I hung up the phone, we shared a laugh about how many calls he gets every day from whiny kids who want their Modern Warfare map packs.

Until now, I’ve been fairly happy with PSN. Demos and purchases went smoothly, the store was easy enough to navigate, and the transactions were straightforward. I’ve always appreciated that the prices are listed in terms of actual currency, rather than the deceptive and somewhat condescending “points” system used by Microsoft and Nintendo.

However, my recent experience has exposed the main drawback in their system, as well as any console-based digital distribution system: because the proprietary nature of the console environment, players and games are subject to competency of the companies maintaining the networks. If I could go to the store and buy a physical copy of DeathSpank, it wouldn’t matter if Best Buy couldn’t sell me one; I could go to Game Stop or Target. But, because the PSN can’t sell me DeathSpank, I can’t have it.

Of course, I could follow the nice Sony rep’s advice and go purchase a pre-paid PSN card. However, doing so would mean I would likely have to pay sales tax, shipping costs, or both on the purchase. This would effectively mean I would be paying more than $1 for each usable dollar of PSN content, an idea that I find utterly repugnant.

It’s almost poetic that this is happening just as Sony is trying to convince me to pay for their service. In addition to the fact that PlayStation Plus still lags behind Xbox Live’s feature set, it seems there is also a possibility that it cannot handle such basic functions as making a transaction with a major credit card company.

In my more desperate moments I began fantasizing about a world in which Steam and Impulse somehow convinced the major console companies to allow games to be sold through their system. Seeing as how Portal 2 will have Steam Cloud support on the PS3, perhaps this isn’t as far-fetched as one might think? Steam provides an experience superior to those offered by Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, and does so without charging usage fees for the service. It would be a shame if the for-pay model became the standard when there are other viable options.

But this idle speculation does nothing to fix my immediate problem. My options seem to be either to waste my money by buying pre-paid cards or to waste my time praying to the digital deities in hopes that the network might magically start working again. This whole situation illustrates the problem with the move towards wholly-digital gaming: while players live more convenient lives, they lose self-sufficiency. I am at the whims of Sony’s non-existent network support. The poor guy who I was on the phone with was just as powerless as I was to change the situation.

Maybe the next firmware update will fix things? It couldn’t make things worse, right? Don’t answer that.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

EXP Podcast #87: Taming the Trolls

The perils of internet anonymity have long stirred up conflict within gaming communities. Blizzards attempt to fight back against forum trolls resulted in a loud outcry from those eager to protect their privacy. While Blizzard's Real ID plans were eventually canceled, they opened up an interesting discussion about anonymity and the role of developers in maintaining a healthy community. Join us this week as Scott and I discuss Blizzard's plans, facebook privacy, horse photos, public shaming, Dennis Rodman, and militant honesty. We encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- How well can online communities police themselves?
- What responsibility does Blizzard have in monitoring and shaping player behavior?
- Is our relation to anonymity changing?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 30 min 39 sec
- “Pro Real ID" by Krystian Majewski, via Game Design Scrapbook
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 19, 2010

Open World Mysteries

Warning: The fourth paragraph of this post contains spoilers for ‘The Strange Man’ quest line of Red Dead Redemption.

The Red Dead Redemption cougar-man Scott referenced last week is a bit of fortuitous devilry that could shake even John Marston’s constitution. In the real world, evidence of such an abomination would be highly prized. Kooks and conspiracy theorists would hunt New Austin’s Lion-O incessantly. Thankfully he is just a glitch. But what of other anomalies in RDR? Could there be unexplained events or hideous creatures roaming the West, intentionally created by Rockstar to fuel intrigue and hint at the game’s untold narrative depth? There are actually some bonafide myth hunters on the trail of Red Dead’s unsolved mysteries.

While looking at comical glitches a few weeks back, I came upon the youtube video embedded below. In it a player discovers a deer pelt and various stones with strange markings on them. They seem to be of Indian origin, perhaps marking a burial of sorts. Interestingly, they lie inconspicuously in a rarely ventured area. There are few reasons the average gamer would stumble upon this find. The location, named the “Mystery Site,” has earned enough curiosity to spawn an entry in the Red Dead Wiki. The forum in which players discuss their theories about the Mystery Site reads like the chatter of real life conspiracy theorists.

Other enigmas have also been discovered and investigated. There was the Red Dead Werewolf, the haunted mansion of Tumbleweed, a zombified Mexican, and strange lights at Sidewinder Gulch. Most of these have been dismissed as glitches, but there are those still eager to speculate. These people are not crazy. People love to entertain the idea of a world not as it seems, even a digital one. In expansive open worlds, like Rockstar creates, oddities and “easter eggs” could be easily hidden.

The Strange Man seems to confirm Rockstar’s willingness to bend reality and tease players with mysterious and optional story elements. This top-hat wearing stranger knows Marston uncannily well and tests Marston with moral predicaments. In the end, when fired upon, the stranger is unharmed. He might be a version of Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, but Rockstar certainly won’t reveal their intent any time soon - which is exactly as it should be.
The mysteries of Red Dead Redemption give players the opportunity to experience the play space in an entirely different manner. The investigators on the Red Dead forum conducted research both in and out of game. Forum user SpectralForm dug up old Indian creation myths, EpicWolf sketched out symbols to share with others, and various members have explored together online, using the game’s Free Roam mode to collaborate on theories regarding folk lore while roaming the desert, eyes on the ground. While not for everyone, exploration and speculation can be very appealing. Players have created for themselves a secondary game, one that involves prodding at the developer’s intent and mapping the fictional world in new ways.

While I think the mystery site is likely inconsequential, a simple detail added to the game to enrich the game’s aesthetics, I sincerely hope Rockstar has something more in mind. With upcoming DLC already announced, including a zombie mode, it is feasible for Rockstar to retroactively reward the mystery posse for their hard work. The investigative pursuit is valuable regardless, but actively encouraging such behavior is valuable to the player community.
In an open world environment, game developers have an exclusive opportunity to play with reality in low level content. Like the hidden symbols in Assassin’s Creed 2, optional content can enrich a game’s narrative even when it is rarely accessed by players. The allure of the unknown is powerful. Open world games can capitalize on this, encouraging cooperative storytelling between player and developer, while simultaneously benefiting from continue play and interest in a game’s unrevealed content. Why constrain ourselves to complete packages, when the jumbled mess of unsolved mysteries are even more entertaining?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rough Riding in Red Dead Redemption

“I’ll just chalk this up to market volatility,” I thought as the bullets raced past my ears.

Although largely uneducated, the ranch hands had attended the school of hard knocks long enough to know a scam when they saw it. Nigel West Dickens had put on a good show, but the crowd turned ugly and decided to usher us out of town. As I ran back to the wagon I heard the bloodthirsty cries from the crowd and considered taking a swig of the “miracle elixir” we were trying to sell. After all, its high alcohol content would probably dull the pain of the beating that was coming our way.

Dickens made it to the driver seat and I swung myself onto the bench, drew my shotgun, and took aim at the closest rider.

Before I could pull the trigger, something funny happened. As if by some miracle, we had been transported away from the angry mob. However, my relief was short lived as I realized that I was now viewing New Austin from an unusual perspective: 10,000 feet above ground. I admired my aerial perch until gravity kicked in. As Dickens, our horses, and I fell head first towards the ground, I couldn’t help but grin.

I don’t know much about the nuts and bolts of programming, but I know enough to understand that making a game is complicated. I imagine it is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to create a Swiss watch. Not only is the end result a combination of many intricate pieces, but each precarious tool must work flawlessly with the next one in order to succeed. No matter how hard developers work to perfect game systems and predict player behavior, humanity’s imperfection and penchant for chaos will produce unexpected results.

Regardless of how you feel about Rockstar’s signature gameplay and storytelling conventions, it’s hard not to admire their confidence. Simply making sure that the massive, intricately detailed world of New Austin runs smoothly is an ambitious project. Letting the player roam around, poking and tugging at every seam in this world borders on madness. Using such widely spaced rails to guide the player practically ensures that they will find bits of the world that don’t quite make sense.

When presented with this freedom, I find myself inclined to “play rough” by aggressively testing the game’s boundaries. Within minutes of starting the game, I began sprinting across town, randomly jumping onto things. When Bonnie was trying to tell me about her ranch, I was busy scaling the side of her porch to see if it would hold my weight. The porch was fine, but my antics did inadvertently break the game and I was automatically ported into the next mission without so much as an explanation.

Upon securing my first horse, I decided to subject it to similar stress tests. After figuring out that the horse could jump, I began running toward steep hills and cliffs to test its climbing ability. This resulted in a variety of para-normal events, but passers by didn’t seem to blink when they saw horses floating through walls and running in mid-air.

As was the case with my impromptu skydiving adventure, there are times when glitches arise unprovoked. Shortly after the game was released there were reports of cougar men and demon horses roaming the countryside. While I fear the patch I downloaded before starting my game may have exorcised these evil spirits, I still wander the hills at night in search of them. Solving the scripted treasure hunts and completing fetch quests is enjoyable, but I still have a better time trying to figure out exactly what makes a carriage spontaneously rocket into the air.

Although these things make it difficult for me to keep a straight face during the story’s serious moments, I find Red Dead’s quirks endearing. Their relative infrequency speaks to the quality of the world Rockstar has built. The fact that many of them arise only when I actively try to push the game’s limits speaks to its quality and the level of freedom it grants to the player. Finding little glitches is often more exciting than completing the official quests because it is unprompted. Stories of possessed wagons and bird-people have become some of the most enduring stories surrounding of the game, and they all emerged from player experiences rather than scripted events.

The glitches in Red Dead Redemption are rarely drastic enough to break the game, and for me they give the experience a personal touch. Like a piece of homemade furniture or a weathered antique, the game possesses some distinguishing quirks that give it personality without sacrificing its overall functionality. Glitches might detract from the story’s gravity, but they add levity to the experience.

When strange things happen in the game world, things seem less sacred in a good way: it becomes more acceptable to explore the game’s systems without the fear of “playing it wrong.” No matter how rough you are on the world, it can always be put back together and explored again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

EXP Podcast #86: Lay Off the Cake

Aperture Science was a meme factory. Years after Portal’s release, we are still quoting the jokes and phrases that helped give the game its unique personality. With the forthcoming release of Portal 2, writer Erik Wolpaw is grappling with the memes spawned by the original. Making cake references might be an easy way to wink at fans, but there is a danger of the game collapsing under the weight of its own baggage. This week, we discuss the unique challenges facing Portal 2 and consider the ways in which memes function in video games and the video game community. We’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments, be they on the subject of cake, cubes, or Keyboard Cats.

Some discussion starters:

- Will it be hard for Portal 2 to distance itself from the baggage of the first game? Would you be disappointed if there were not cake references?

- What are some of your favorite game memes and why? Is there a specific purpose they serve either in or out of the game?

- Is it possible to have gameplay memes?

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 03 sec
- “Portal 2's Wolpaw: 'I Do Not Want To Resurrect A Three-Year-Old Meme',” by Chris Remo, via GameSetWatch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Sensationalist: On Love

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 contains spoilers for
Lost Odyssey, The Darkness, Final Fantasy X, Passage and Uncharted 2.

This past weekend, my Experience Points writing partner Scott Juster got betrothed. The wedding ceremony was excellent and it felt rewarding to watch to great friends, clearly in love, become betrothed. For centuries artists have developed pictures of love, the all-consuming emotion that is so fundamental to human life and culture. To capture the medley of sensations included in love is a grand endeavor, for whatever creators come up with will only capture a shred of what weddings are designed to celebrate. With such emotions in the air, what better time to explore romance in videogames.

Conveying the feeling of love to someone, or something, not actually real is tremendously difficult - in no small part because love seems to encompass the gamut of human feelings. Longing, worry, jubilation and jealousy can all stem from romance. Artists draw upon a suite of sensations when depicting love. The best game designers and writers capture some of the elements with careful precision.
Interestingly, the only undoubtedly married couple playable in a videogame that I could find is Kaim and Sara of Lost Odyssey. While a portion of the game includes Kaim’s search and rescue of his beloved, their emotional connection is enhanced by their partnership in action as well. Knowing they are romantic partners enhances the meaning of companionship in the game as we rely on her skills in combat in addition to her presence in the story. The shared experience between two playable characters makes the game’s happy ending that much more rewarding. Unlike the tragic consequences of romance between Cloud and Aeris, the game confirms the love between two characters and even celebrates the concept with another scene of a marriage.

The physical presence of another, the back and forth between mere accompaniment and reliance, is an excellent method of communicating a meaningful relationship. The haptic communication of Prince of Persia, and the Prince’s reliance on Elika, creates a non-spoken bond between the two characters. The way their banters changes over time, becoming increasingly friendly, emphasizes their growing relationship.
The absence of Elika during a few brief moments in the game, particularly considering how useful she is mechanically, evokes a sense of loss and concern, some of the emotional risks that come with love. While others surely disagree, I found the Prince’s decision at the end of the game to revive Elika despite the consequences to be both believable and moving. Even the strongest willed individuals have made tragic mistakes because of love.

The Harvest Moon franchise lets players woo a love interest and even marry and have children. Like marriage in Fable II, the game breaks down an evolving relationship mechanically, essentially creating a “Will you marry me?” flow chart of optimal decisions. Once married, the familial character is more of a household adornment than a realistic love interest, but it does create a feeling of reassurance. One aspect of romantic love is knowing another person will be there for you, by physically and emotionally. The spouses of Harvest Moon and Fable II capture this slice of comfortable romance just slightly.
Dragon Age: Origins does a better job of conveying the growth of mutual affection. Seducing Leliana, for example, requires numerous conversations and “correct” dialogue decisions. These story elements develop a friendship between two strangers in a relatively organic fashion. While the game does still measure and monitor relationships, which devalues any budding romances, it makes up for it with dialogue. If, after sleeping with an NPC, the player character has a romp with another party member, their first love might even confront them. Dragon Age depicts the friendship aspects of romantic love, a just a little bit of jealousy as well.

The story of loss and pursuit are common trends for videogame romances. Mario must love the Princess, right? Why else would he risk his life, time and again, traveling through the mushroom kingdom and into the heart of Bowser’s castle if not for love? Sadly we know nothing of their relationship. It is just as feasible that Mario rescues Princess Peach because he has a strong sense of patriotic duty to his future Queen.
Similar tribulations face Drake when Elena’s life is threatened in Uncharted 2. Likewise, Jackie from The Darkness is faced with the disappearance and eventual murder of his girlfriend Jenny. So distraught is Jackie that he tries to commit suicide. Love is also capable of conjuring up powerfully dark emotions.

Tidus’s death in Final Fantasy X is moving, and Yuna’s attempt to whistle for his reappearance is heartbreaking for anyone who has felt the cold sting of love’s absence. Yuna’s pursuit of Tidus is even strong enough to fuel the story of Final Fantast X-2. The prospect of reviving her lost love, like the option that faces the Prince, is too appealing to pass up, even if it means untold dangers. Such adventures are common in games, perhaps because of the excitement such tales as The Odyssey has inspired in those willing to risk everything for the ones they love.
Jason Rhorer’s Passage captures the feeling of accompaniment and emotional loss present in Prince of Persia in an austere package. In one moment of profundity, Rhorer’s evokes a powerful sense of loss when your companion dies and your solitary character must carry on alone. He also evokes a similar sensation when the helpful partner in Gravity goes missing, trapping the player character on the bottom level, alone but for a slowly dying fireplace. Love does not come without risks. Artists and designers capture shreds of love, even some of the melancholy ones.

Love is hard to find and is invaluable. Depicting the complex range of emotions associated with love is an impossibly hard task. To embark on such an endeavor, to resolve oneself to depict and evoke sensations of romance, is a noble act. Even in these videogame fantasies, we are reminded of love’s fragility, its warmth, its comforting aura, its excitement and its dangers. To some extent, even artificial amor reminds us to cherish what love we find in our lives. In the spirit of adoration and fascination with love, let this article be a toast - to Scott and Hanah on finding, capturing, and appreciating the most powerful sensation of all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Theft and Recreation

Every year at the Penny Arcade Expo, attendees get to share their design concepts at the “Pitch Your Game Idea” panel. If you listened to Robert Ashley’s most recent episode of A Life Well Wasted you know nearly every gamer has an game idea. The vast majority of them are utter garbage. For those serious about shopping around their creation, the PAX judges suggest you refrain from revealing your design plans - someone might just steal your idea and incorporate it into their own game. For David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, such piracy might actually be a good thing. Maybe the games industry needs more development piracy.

While Shields’s work is in regards to the novel, his thoughts on the thin border between plagiarism and artistic works are interesting. In a recent Wired interview, Shields elucidates his belief that “writers should feel free to commandeer one another’s words and ideas.” So passionate is his conviction that he constructed his own work “using hundreds of lightly attributed quotes and paraphrases.” When asked if using another’s words is akin to “taking their fruit and throwing away the basket,” Shields had this to say:

Um, isn’t the fruit what we want? Who cares about the basket? I suppose the argument is that by radically decontextualizing the passages, I’m remaking them so thoroughly as to violate the original context. That’s the whole point. Art without risk or danger or transgression never stays news, I assure you.

By snagging ideas from others, artists can save themselves time and money, contribute to a widening pop-culture conversation, and create a fresh work of art every bit as valuable as an wholly original product. Musical mashups prove ingenious creations can be birthed from existing works. Indeed, such artists as Danger Mouse and Pogo are known for such creations.

In many ways the games industry is already an open realm of free ideas. Jay Pavlina designed a videogame mashup with his Super Mario Bros. Crossover, which allows you to play through the original Super Mario Bros. as characters from other Nintendo games, such as Samus, Link, Mega Man. Similarly, David Kraftsow redesigned the original Tetris to rotate the player’s point of view instead of the pieces in First-Person Tetris. Both designers took existing games and innovated upon them, creating an altogether different and enjoyable medley.

While big studios are less obvious in their procurement of ideas, concepts spread across the medium regardless. Valve created Portal after employing the development team behind Narbacular Drop, the game’s spiritual predecessor. They also hired the devs behind Tag: The Power of Paint, who undoubtedly inspired Portal 2’s new paint mechanic. While completely legal and beneficial for everyone, Portal’s lineage will all but disappear for the average fan. One of the most anticipated games of all time is partly built upon the ideas of others.

The normative game mechanics we love, and love to hate, spread invisibly but persistently. Any game with a cover mechanic exists because of games like Kill.Switch, Gears of War, and Metal Gear Solid. Likewise, anyone who does not see God of War screaming out of Dante’s Inferno is blind or works for the EA marketing department.
Given a base of inspiration, any number of innovations can grow. This is partly the logic behind the open source movement. The Half-Life engine has spawned fantastic mods, including Dear Esther. Warcraft III spawned Defense of the Ancients, which in turn spawned League of Legends. The developers and marketers behind the Humble Indie Bundle were hoping for similar success when Gish, Aquaria, Lugaru, and Penumbra Overture all pledged to go open source. In the hands of talented individuals with a knack for mechanical mashups, any number of great ideas can be born.

Open source, generally, gives access to the game engine while game content is still protected. Shields might suggest we broaden what we understand as acceptable “borrowing behavior.” While I do not condone all out theft of intellectual property, I am inclined to agree with him. In a litigious games industry, sampling another’s work can be a frightening endeavor. But is it such an alien idea?

Mashups seem so much easier to create in music and literature. In a book a mere footnote might suffice, yet borrowing an entire game mechanic from another development studio and thanking them in the end credits might not. If developers more openly share their work, maybe even their code, who knows what clever studios could create. Like Shield’s take on Pogo, maybe indie developers should take, recreate, and do “what artists have done throughout history — use, reuse, and abuse previous works to create [their] own.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

EXP Podcast #85: Twisted Truth

Every year E3 is all about surprises. Some take the art of the surprise very seriously. At this year's event, Designer David Jaffe shocked fans when he announced the new Twisted Metal. Why were some so taken aback? Because Jaffe explicitly denied the existence of such a title. Without a shred of doubt, he completely lied to journalists and readers. Branching off a post from Kyle Orland on the subject, and two pieces by Nels Anderson, Scott and I discuss the value of surprises, games journalism, film industry norms, and the cultural of secrets. You can find the original articles in the show notes and we encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Is secrecy in the games industry valuable in anyway?
- Should we be alright with this much secrecy? How about Jaffe's behavior?
- Is the industry incapable of becoming more transparent or is the a cultural trait that can be changed?

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: 24 min 27 sec
- "David Jaffe is a liar. Do we care?" by Kyle Orland, via The Game Beat
- "It's All Cloack & Dagger" by Nels Anderson, via Above49
- "Sometimes, The Spy Games are Too Much" by Nels Anderson, via Above49
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 5, 2010

Limited Pleasure

It is easy to think of games as portals through which to experience a world unrestrained by the limits of our own. A game can make something as spectacular as interstellar travel feel effortless. Banal activities like driving a car become exciting again: “Shall I stay in my lane and obey traffic signals, or shall I instead use the car in front of me as a makeshift ramp and hop over a drawbridge?” Games not only show us these worlds that flaunt the rules we live by, they allow us to participate in the fantasy.

This sense of freedom in games accounts for some of their appeal, but it also obscures another important factor that draws us to them. For all their grandeur, even the most empowering and complex games create limited worlds. Unlike the chaos and infinite complexity of our lives, games are governed with systems that can be learned and mastered. This simultaneously satisfies our desire to understand the mysterious while soothing our fear of the unknown. Viewed this way, almost all video games are exercises in pleasure of limits.

Games serve our desire to collect and explore the unknown while also providing us specified parameters for measuring success. The Pokemon trainer can take solace in the fact that their Pokedex will always be able to tell them how close they are to “catching them all,” but the field biologist must live in perpetual uncertainty as to whether every species in a single forest has truly been studied. Convenient mini-maps and readouts showing the percentage of possible activities we have explored in Liberty City allow us to definitively measure our knowledge of the town. The city’s virtual denizens and hollow buildings are crude facsimiles of the real things, but their simplicity allows us to grasp the city and its workings.

The limits built into our virtual avatars allow us to chase and achieve the fantasy of ultimate mastery over skills. Since the earliest days of RPGs, we have expressed such complex terms as vigor, agility, and wisdom in numerical terms that are then used as predictors for success. Only through rigorous training or outstanding circumstances can we begin to guess at the extent of our own abilities. Games allow us to dispense with the guesswork: Once Link gets twenty full heart containers and powers up his magic meter, he has reached the pinnacle of his abilities, and so have we as players. No amount of extra training could possibly improve him, which is comforting because it is something about which we are always uncertain. Would another couple minutes jogging help that twinge in your back?

The systemic limits in games also provide us with idealized versions of social interactions. When we deal with artificial intelligence in games like The Sims, we can recreate recognizable, yet manageable reproductions of familiar social situations in a way such that they are unambiguous. Feelings of love, jealousy, and happiness are reduced to simple numbers and graphs from which we can make informed decisions. By placing a limit on the consciousness of others we can inhabit a world devoid of missteps and irreversible errors. We know these virtual constructs more thoroughly, more absolutely than those we meet in our daily lives.

Limits act as an equalizer in terms of social interaction when playing multiplayer games. While the rules of Halo, or Star Craft may be nuanced and complex, they are standardized. Everyone interacts by using tools made available for the entire population. Players can be more or less adept in using these tools, but the social rules have defined parameters that can be learned. When we step away from these limited worlds, things quickly become overwhelming. A game like Sleep is Death is intimidating because its complexity stems from its potential for variety. Without a prescribed framework, it begins to take on the frightening openness of the world from which video games usually allow us to escape.

Every marvelous power a game grants comes with limits that make exploring the experience manageable. Because they are structured in terms of basic rules, games can never truly reproduce the complexity of our lives; they can only approximate it in ways that are inherently more simplistic and understandable than the outside world. They provide us the ultimate fantasy: through their limitations, games grant us respite from the awesome, terrifying chaos of our normal lives.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Zelda and the Road More Traveled

It has been nearly twenty-five years, but every new Zelda game uses the same basic formula that the original used back in 1986: there is an overworld, discrete dungeons, and items in those dungeons that must be used to solve them. Since 1991, all sprite-based and hand-held Zeldas have utilized the same basic mechanics and dynamics of A Link to the Past. Since 1998, each polygonal Zelda has utilized the same basic mechanics and dynamics as Ocarina of Time.

Barring the occasional grunt, Link remains one of the few silent protagonists in gaming. In a climate where even games like Sonic and Gears of War attempt to integrate character arcs and love interests, Link remains more of an observer than a participant in the world. As a character, he is a sponge, soaking up information from others while offering very little insight into his own motivations.

Skyward Sword looks to deviate very little from this influential, yet well-worn formula. This puts it in stark contrast with franchises like Mario, a series that continually reinvents its dynamics, and games like Darksiders that modernize the Zelda formula. In most respects, Zelda is a remarkably cautious series. Its gameplay and plot have been repeating the same basic narratives for years.

Seeing as how I was already pondering the franchise’s oddities, I decided to venture all the way down the rabbit hole and watch some of the old Legend of Zelda cartoons.

For those of you in the U.S., Hulu is currently hosting the entire run. Those outside the U.S. might have to do some more scrounging, but I have found the first episode on YouTube.

Could this obnoxious, hilariously inappropriate relic be any further from the sterile, high-fantasy adventure we have come to expect from the franchise?

Instead of a stoic hero, Link has embraced the late 1980s ethos and become a whiny rebel with attitude and badditude. Zelda, the target to his annoying affection, is an officious nag who seems to simply tolerate her subjects.

The two of them, along with “Spryte” (who, interestingly, shares quite a few traits with Navi, as well as Tinkerbell), share a surprisingly sexually-charged relationship. As a kid, I failed to recognize Link as the creeper he is: Instead of the basically asexual character from the games, Link is cat calling Zelda, staring down her blouse and angling for a kiss just minutes after opening title. All the while, Spryte vies for Link’s attention, despite the obvious physical complications that would arise.

Rather than the ultimate evil incarnate, Gannon is a bumbling fool whose plans of world domination rely on convoluted schemes and incompetent goons. More than anything, his antics serve as an excuse for Link and Zelda to awkwardly bicker and nag their way towards the episode’s resolution.

The cartoon can easily be written off as a strange evolutionary dead end for the franchise. However, when viewed in the context of what has happened to Zelda in the years since 1989 (when the series first aired), perhaps this Link is not as divorced from the one we play in the games.

What has happened to Zelda since 1989? Very little, actually. In terms of their plot and gameplay, the Zelda games have always been about the journey rather than the goal. Like Link, the player starts off bereft of skills and equipment. Through exploration, combat, and puzzle solving, the player and Link trudge to their ultimate goal. Saving Zelda and vanquishing Gannon is usually a bitter-sweet affair, as it means that Link’s mission has been fulfilled and he must lay his sword down. Because the game defines Link as a warrior in both a ludic and narrative sense, a major part of his life’s purpose disappears when peace returns.

Link goes so far as to seek out new quests during his downtime: Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask are both the result of Link embarking on new adventures. The player partakes in these journeys, relearning old skills and mastering new ones all the whole.

In the first episode of the cartoon, Link’s goes so far as to bemoan his victory. As he wakes up in a peaceful Hyrule, he pines for the good old days:

Yuck. Another beautiful day in the magical kingdom of Hyrule...boring place. I used to roam the world, fighting monsters and sleeping in mud. A hero’s life! Now look at me, living in a castle, sleeping in a bed, aren’t I sweet? Yuck!

Instead of the courageous underdog the legends speak of, he is a glorified body guard who is just as much a prisoner of his success as his a beneficiary. In light of this, is it surprising that Nintendo is reluctant to remove Link from his life of perpetual adventuring? Link has been doing the same thing for such a long time that it has become more than what he does; it is his identity. I don’t know what a Zelda game would look like if it didn’t follow the proven tradition, and I wager that Nintendo doesn’t either.

Skyward Sword looks to be more of the same in terms of gameplay and plot, but is this necessarily a bad thing? What would be worse: a familiar, yet cleverly designed dungeon with polished combat dynamics, or a new, yet poorly acted dialogue tree in which one of the options is always “Excuuuuuuse me, Princess!”