Friday, February 26, 2010

Braid's Scientific Appeal

The now famous (or infamous?) official Braid walkthrough states:

All the puzzles are reasonable.

They don't require you to do anything random; they don't require guessing. They don't require trial and error. The solutions tend to be simple and natural. They flow directly from the rules of gameplay in each world.

While I agree that the puzzles are reasonable and that they flow directly from the rules of the gameplay world, I doubt there is anyone aside from Jonathan Blow who has completed Braid without a fair share of guesswork, trial and error, and a willingness to explore complicated and unnatural concepts. I present this not as a criticism, but as a compliment. Had Braid's puzzles not required experimentation and exceptional thinking, the game would have been a significantly more mundane experience.

Braid allows me to indulge in what I have referred to previously as "scientific gaming." My favorite (and I would argue the best) games tend to focus on pushing the player to explore a core system of rules: Mario has jumping and dodging, PixelJunk Eden has jumping and swinging, and Portal has jumping and...portals. Evidently, I have a clear pro-jumping bias.

Certainly, the aforementioned examples are crude over-simplifications, and their rules reflect neither reality nor necessarily rules that the player would choose for themselves. Their strength flows not from affording player agency in terms of creating rules, but in giving the player a solid foundation on which to build their understanding of the in-game universe and the power to then experiment with these constraints.

Braid, like the aforementioned examples, partakes in the hallowed tradition of jumping and pairs it with time manipulation. The game combines these and other actions to give rise to mind-bending dynamics, but the center of the game revolves around immutable underlying rules that govern the way time flows and Tim moves.

Contrary to the walkthrough's assertion, the game is about guessing, trail and error, and exploring what would seem unnatural in most games. Jumping off the ledge in "Leap of Faith" to get the puzzle piece almost guarantees failure the first time. The solution requires learning from your mistakes and evaluating hypotheses on how to reach that piece. Solving Braid's puzzles is about more than simply obtaining a reward or overcoming an obstacle; the solution necessitates that the player ends up with a greater understanding of the game's most basic systems with every additional piece.

One of the more maligned puzzles, "Crossing the Gap," is actually the perfect example of what makes Braid outstanding. This video shows someone doing a speed run of the puzzle:

I seriously doubt anyone could solve this puzzle so flawlessly the first time they encounter it. Personally, it probably took me more than an hour of experimentation before I realized the solution. Initially, I kept bouncing off goombas to get the trampoline effect, trying in vain to will myself up the platform. I tried luring two enemies out of the cannon to increase my jump, but that didn't work either. My breakthrough started on a fluke: I accidentally allowed the goomba to drop on me from above. Since one of the rules of the universe was that death is reversible, I let the full animation play out rather than rewinding it after the immediate hit. To my surprise, I saw the goomba trampoline off of me as, just as I did off of an enemy. I then put it all together: I already knew that the shadow figure acted as physical being, therefore the goomba would bounce off of it, and then I could then bounce off of the goomba and into victory.

This breakthrough is a glorious contradiction of the official walkthrough. Solving the puzzle came after much trial and error. The epiphany of realizing the enemies could bounce on me came randomly, from my mistake. The decision to sit through the entire death animation was one made out of curiosity. Combining these elements yielded an unexpected, yet extremely logical and satisfying solution, as the outcome was perfectly justified by the game's core rules.

So often, "puzzles" in games are actually glorified checklists. Figuring out how to defeat a boss in a Zelda game is often as simple as seeing a pattern and finding the flashing red part of the enemy's body. In the recent Resident Evil 5 DLC, the first twenty minutes consist of puzzles that are little more than speed bumps: there is no creativity or experimentation necessary to solve them and they are just there to play off of nostalgia and extend the experience.

Done correctly, a puzzle is something that requires a scientific thought-process. Exploration backed by solid, consistent mechanics allows the player to utilize the game rules rather than simply be propelled forward by them. I agree with the spirit of Braid's walkthrough: it is intensely rewarding to both solve the puzzles and to see how the solutions are justified by the game's basic structure.

I would go further and contradict the guide to argue that it is not in spite, but because of the game's ability to accommodate experimentation and chance that the puzzles are so successful. Braid gives us a world in which valid solutions can arise from hours of incremental tests, a seemingly random fluke, or a combination of the two. Scientific logic and serendipity are not mutually exclusive. Just ask Alexander Fleming.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

EXP Podcast #66: Fall Sales Wager Results

Remember back in October, when we tried to guess which new fall titles would be the biggest sellers of the season? This week, we reveal the much anticipated outcome. The whole experiment was much more complicated than we bargained for, but we came away with some interesting lessons about the allure of franchises, the supposed "casual/core" dichotomy, and the shadowy world of sales numbers.

Below is our list of the best selling games as well as our respective predictions. For those of you playing along, how did you do? Were there any big surprises? Did any of your favorites miss the list?

Also, you may want to take this opportunity to say "hi" to Jorge. You know, put any old arguments to rest, or maybe say something nice just to show you care. Life is unpredictable: one day you're on top of the world and next you're writhing in intestinal anguish after indulging in some laxative-infused tiramisu custard...

Actual List (as calculated by us):

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
2. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
3. Wii Fit Plus
4. Assassin's Creed 2
5. Left 4 Dead 2
6. Dragon Age: Origins
7. Borderlands
8. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
9. DJ Hero
10. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Jorge's List:

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

Scott's List:

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

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

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

Monday, February 22, 2010

Being Watched

To welcome Naughty Dog's newest release, Sony aired a commercial in which a beleaguered boyfriend complains to Sony that his girlfriend will not stop watching him play Uncharted 2. With popcorn in hand, she believes the game is actually a movie. The ad is intended to tout the visual prowess of the PS3 and the storytelling virtuosity of Naughty Dog. Besides being overtly sexist, it also suggests, albeit trivially, that videogames can be entertaining not just to play, but to watch. Indeed, for the many gamers who use their consoles in the public space of their homes, having bystanders is a frequent occurrence.

But what of the players? Whether we like it or not, how we engage with games around others is significantly different than how we engage with games when alone. Like chatter during a movie screening, we may be diluting our gaming experience with the presence of onlookers.

To be fair, some games are actually improved with a good audience. Rock Band is one such game, whose collection of crowd pleasing ballads and face melting guitar solos are more entertaining when there are actually crowds to please and faces to melt. Rhythm games, and many party games, thrive on the atmosphere of boisterous fans. When there are others singing along, a living room can feel like a stage.
These games are outliers, however, creating a different experience than that of being watched during a single-player game. Often a crowd's enjoyment of Rock Band is predicated on their eventual interaction. During most Rock Band gatherings, the audience is eagerly waiting their turn at the guitar. Their viewing is colored by their inevitable participation. They may encourage success, learn techniques, and eye upcoming songs.

At the very least, even those clapping in the background, with no intention of rocking the drums, are actively engaged in play. While not directly connected to on-screen actions, they still contribute to the music in the room and perpetuate the illusion of a stage performance. Their role is valuable in this case - they are actively improving the group play session of Rock Band with their enthusiasm and presence. For most single-player games, however, a contingency of outsiders creates a strange and counter-immersive environment.

Few people, long-time gamers included, can accurately assess a game through viewings alone. Besides their inability to interact with the game's mechanics themselves, they may misinterpret the player's actions. Player inputs and what occurs on screen are disconnected. What could be a very difficult precision jump in Super Mario Galaxy may seem like an easy feat to an inexperienced bystander. Alternatively, a player's swift movement through rough terrain in Prince of Persia may appear like an unimaginable accomplishment to friends sitting nearby. Not only does this interaction gap affect their interpretation of the game, it also affects the player's experience as well.
For some, an extra set of eyes can create undue pressure. Failure stings just a little bit more when a friend can watch and mock the death of your protagonist. Even with less insulting company, if the onlooker has underestimated the difficulty of certain in-game maneuvers, poor outcomes can be embarrassing. Many gamers have heard a bystander mutter "I thought you were good at games."

Similarly, an impressionable sideline can motivate a player to more visibly succeed. I will admit to showing off now and again. I have also been known to try to capture the game in its best light, keeping viewers entertained. Taking less risks to avoid death, skipping more tedious story elements, and drawing out action sequences are just a few ways people may, intentionally or unintentionally, alter their play experience for the perceived benefit of viewers. Be they strangers or close friends, the presence of others changes how we explore the boundaries of games. Players may unnaturally proceed along or abandon normative play patterns.

Having company may also affect a players experience of a narrative. It can be difficult to immerse yourself in the romantic connection between Mass Effect 2's Commander Shepard and Garrus or Tali when someone from the crowd interrupts with alien fetish jokes or questions about the intricacies of Quarian love making.

Less intrusive onlookers may equally create an awkward situation. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, for example, asks players to fill out psychological questionnaires that include some very personal information in order to alter the game to the player's profile. One set of questions pertains to relationships, asking the player if they have ever cheated on their partner or if they enjoy role-play during sex. I can imagine an awkward situation for gamers wanting to answer truthfully with their partner in their room. While the above situation is probably rare, the potential for undesirable situations, particularly with non-gamers, is high when narrative decisions are made. Gamer shame may be exacerbated while fearing the judgment of onlookers, diluting the experience for devoted players.

None of this is to say single-player games should always be played alone. Some great gaming moments can occur with others, and I encourage playing with others in the room. However, I do believe there a videogame equivalent to the "theatrical experience" of cinema. Playing alone is, for many games, the optimal condition for immersion. Perhaps we should think more closely about who watches us play, only allowing the best viewers when possible. Or, at the very least, we should better appreciate the time we spend alone for what it is - an entirely unique experience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Braid's Personal Appeal

Jonathan Blow has been very upfront about the meaning of Braid. In an interview with Chris Dahlen of the Onion A.V. Club, he says it plainly: "In fact, I do have a very specific meaning behind everything in the game. Everything has a purpose, not just in the levels, but in every word."

I admire this philosophy, and I believe it imbues Braid with a sense of care few creative works exhibit. It also makes me sympathetic to Blow's apparent frustration over the many divergent interpretations of his work. However my sympathy has a limit. He says:

"I feel that a lot of people are a little bit too quick to take concrete bits of evidence that they find and that they recognize, and to use those to create a definitive explanation of everything and to bend all other facts to fit that explanation. Whereas, why didn't you take those facts that you found and bend those facts to fit other facts to make another explanation?"

Although he mentions he was an English major at Berkeley, I fear that Blow did not learn what has become the major's central tenant (one that it shares with the college in general): It is not the intention that matters, it is the interpretation. People bend facts to fit their interpretation because that is how humans make sense of their lives. Whether one writes a novel, conducts research in theoretical physics, or records history, the meaning is ultimately derived from the interpretation of the work, rather than the work itself.

In this spirit, I'd like to share why Braid resonated with me on a personal level. I will try to make my reasoning clear and weave the narrative themes and the gameplay together. I know that this is likely not what you had in mind, Jonathan, but I hope that your frustration with players has dulled; that people care enough to integrate the game into their worldviews seems like one of the highest complements one could offer.

World 2. Time and Forgiveness

"Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?"

In my other life, I study history. I do so less out of a love for trivia and more due to a wistful longing to understand choices, their consequences, and their contemporary application. I find myself agonizing over both grand and irrelevant decisions because I know that my knowledge of the soon-to-be past will make me better equipped to make a decision that has already been lost. I take comfort in the hope that I will someday face a similar decision, so that I can attempt to learn from the mistakes.

Playing a video game is one of the rare times in which a person can own the benefits of history without being burdened by its consequences. Every mistake in a video game can be learned from and corrected. Braid takes this underlying concept and pushes it to the forefront: the rewind mechanic is a literal version of what we do when we restart a Mario level or re-load a quicksave in Mass Effect. It shows us our mistakes, scrubs off any painful consequences, and lets me have another chance. This is a fantasy that I will chase for my whole life, knowing that I will never attain it. For a moment, Braid gives me the feeling that I just might do it.

World 4. Time and Place

"Visiting his parents' home for a holiday meal, Tim felt as though he had regressed to those long-ago years when he lived under their roof, oppressed by their insistence on upholding strange values which, to him, were meaningless. Back then, bickering would erupt over drops of gravy spilt onto the tablecloth.

Escaping, Tim walked in the cool air toward the university he'd attended after moving out of his parents' home. As he distanced himself from that troubling house, he felt the embarrassment of childhood fading into the past. But now he stepped into all the insecurities he'd felt at the university all the panic of walking a social tightrope.

Tim only felt relieved after the whole visit was over, sitting back home in the present, steeped in contrast: he saw how he'd improved so much from those old days."

I am lucky to have a good relationship with my parents, but even so, the game succeeded in articulating the complicated feelings associated with the transition out of of childhood. The text invokes the holidays, the time that many people who have moved away from their parents briefly re-visit their childhood homes. Most winters, I find myself back home, shuddering at the thought of regressing to the immaturity of those days. Like the world's accompanying portrait, I feel spied on by the past itself, conspicuous and trapped around the baubles that belonged to a person that I no longer am.

Like Tim, I consider a myself a vast improvement over that past being. However, try as I might to consign those fears to the depths of my brain, physically traveling to those places somehow transports me back in time. In World 4, Braid gives this abstract feeling an immediate structure by causing time to rewind as the player moves backwards. Braid's gameplay externalizes the feeling of traveling backwards through time by extending the metaphor into a gameplay reality. Time stands still if I do, I find myself in the past if I go backwards, and time only glows if I myself progress. It is a frighteningly apt portrayal of the emotional link between time and space.

6. Hesitance

"But the ring makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion, distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth."

"In time he learns to deal with others carefully. He matches their hesitant pace, tracing a soft path through their defenses. But this exhausts him, and it only works to a limited degree. It doesn't get him what he needs."

In Braid, marriage warps the social and physical reality around Tim. Specifically, the ring acts as a symbol that changes the way people act towards him, which in turn effects the way he relates to them. Somehow, the symbol alters his identity before he can explain himself. This social phenomenon is represented in the gameplay as a ring that exudes a sphere that slows down time within its radius. Just as the people who get too close to him hesitate, so do the objects that venture towards the ring.

Long before I played Braid, I noticed this phenomenon happening around me. Although I do not wear a ring yet, even telling people that I am getting married elicits odd reactions. While I do not feel any different, I can see some people subtly morph as I tell them my plans. Often, older folks get protective or wistful. Younger folks tend to get suspicious, incredulous, and perhaps even slightly jealous. Regardless of how they react, I feel myself transformed from a person into a representation of an idea.

It feels like I am both more and less than a person; I am the manifestation of a social construction, a representation of a both troubled and beautiful institution that threatens to subsume my identity. Like Tim, I must subtly, yet deliberately convince people of my intentions, perhaps even of my discrete existence. It was an unforeseen consequence of getting engaged, one that has been exceedingly hard to describe. Seeing it represented thematically, visually, and ludically in Braid is something that I will remember forever.

I understand people who say that they are underwhelmed by Braid. I find myself comparing it to a book that has always underwhelmed me: Catcher in the Rye. Even when I was a teenager, I had little affinity for Holden or his situation, and learning more about J.D. Salinger only reinforced this feeling of alienation. Intellectually, I recognize its meaning for those who feel a personal connection and I sometimes wish I could share the experience. In the case of Braid, I am one of the lucky ones on the inside: I find echoes of my own life within the game and in the ideas of its ornery creator.

Braid is an extremely personal game, as is evidenced by copious amount of fan analysis and Blow's reaction to the theories. Intentionally or not, Braid's capacity to accommodate a multitude of personal meanings allows it to transcend the intentions of any single individual.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

EXP Podcast #65: Commercial Appeal

Take a look at the trailer for Vanquish below. This is the latest work from Shinji Mikami, famed creator of the Resident Evil franchise. What exactly is going on here? What type of game is this? We've got a gruff looking space marine fighting robot aliens. What are we supposed to get out of this trailer? Which brings us to this week's topic: What are we supposed to get out of trailers in general? Join us while we discuss veterans, butterflies, 80's music, exploitation, and the art of game trailers. You can find links to some of the trailers we discuss in the show notes. We encourage you to check them out and leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:

- Can trailers even hope to give an accurate assessment of what the game is going to be like?

- Do they have an obligation to not mislead the viewer?

- What do you look for in a good trailer? Have any favorites? Have you ever avoided them?

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 02 sec
- Halo 3 Museum Trailer
- GTA4: Liberty City Stories Trailer
- Mirror's Edge Trailer
- Gears of War 2
- Left 4 Dead 2 Trailer
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Friends of Bioware

I have two groups of friends who will never meet and both were created by Bioware. The first is a racially diverse group of adventures from around the world, recruited to stop an impending evil. The second is a racially diverse group of adventures from around the galaxy, recruited to stop an impending evil. They have so much in common. There are even characters in both games who sing to the protagonist. Yet they are not equal. Amongst the fantasy heroes of Dragon Age: Origins and the sci-fi posse of Mass Effect 2, I have my favorites. Comparing the two sets of relationships is a means to explore the successes and failures of Bioware's recent foray into the creation of compelling friendships.

Moving back and forth between playing ME2 and DA:O is a strange experience. There are times when, irritated by Morrigan's cruel attitude towards all living creatures besides herself, I long for Mordin's scientific approach to life. Conversely, I sometimes favor Alistair's youthful humor over Jack's cold demeanor. The games are similar enough that, were it not for the setting, I would not be surprised to find Garrus roasting marshmallows around the Ferelden campfire.

Early in each game, the protagonist is given two core allies. The majority of each experience is mostly spent recruiting the remaining party members, as individuals or as representatives of their people contributing to the war effort. It is understood in both cases that the success of the long term mission hinges upon their support. Unfortunately they are so morally disparate, some quite ethically ambivalent, that trusting them and finding a way to please them can be difficult.
Take ME2's Grunt for example, the epitome of a Krogan: gruff, stoic, eager to commit violence, and potentially unstable. Sten may be His DA:O counterpart, a gruff, stoic, and potentially unstable Qunari known to have murdered an innocent family. Both party members are optional, but if accepted, they are ambiguous additions to the friends group. Managing their inclusion is a narrative task for the player seeking to justify and understand their place in the story.

Each cast member has their own personal history, which comes into play during optional side quests. Completing these quests offer mechanical rewards, insight into their character, and opportunities to enhance emotional bonds. Yet these emotional bonds are stronger amongst one group. When it comes to the final battle, I would rather have the crew of the Normandy by my side.

Despite the similarities between the two games, Mass Effect 2 creates more compelling relationships between the protagonist and her cohorts for one reason - the friendships are more personal. To begin with, ME2 has the advantage of being a sequel. As I have discussed once before, the sentimentality of ME2 evokes a sense of nostalgia, deepening the in-game relations between Commander Shepard and the crew with which she is already familiar. Yet even with her new crew members, Shepard builds a stronger rapport.
Voice acting goes a long way in this regard. While Shepard is not the most emotive person in the galaxy, her verbal interactions with crew members, particularly during loyalty quests, display the emotional attachment she has with her team. The same can be said for scenes of haptic communication. A paragon-leaning Commander Shepard appears more willing to hug her friends, or give them a reassuring hand on the shoulder, than her DA:O counterpart.

The story foundation also constructs more personal relationships in ME2. Commander Shepard pursues individuals to join her ranks, while the protagonist of DA:O recruits armies. Collecting individuals is just a side effect. Similarly, the personal quests available in DA:O seem less personally significant than in ME2, taking a relatively short amount of time. The over-all mission is always of the utmost importance.

The loyalty quests in ME2, however, are very emotional, and are particularly interesting for Shepard. There are times when she must decide to uphold her own principles or protect her friends. These decisions are not easy to make. Also, it is hard to measure the outcomes of these choices.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, monitors the affection of your friends and displays it numerically. This relationship meter is DA:O's biggest barrier to realistic friendships. While it offers a mechanically interesting addition to the game, it creates bizarre circumstances where behavior is tailored to fickle allies and is easily measured. The games seems to reassert that these are not your friends, they are your troops. Pleasing them is a responsibility, not a personal desire.

This is not to say the relationships in Dragon Age are vapid. On the contrary, Bioware surpasses the vast majority of games with party mechanics in regards to compelling cohorts. Additionally, more impressive than creating believable friendships, is Bioware ability to evoke emotions by threatening these characters. I have arrived at the point in both games where I proceed with trepidation, fearing for the safety of my team. I applaud the lead writers for ME2 and DA:O for this achievement (Mac Walters and David Gaider respectively). Regardless, when the suspense of a game depends on compelling relationships, Bioware should pay more attention to the Normandy crew of Mass Effect 2 than the fireside camp of Dragon Age.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Braid's Allusive Appeal

Thanks largely to Jorge and David Carlton, I have been thinking about the idea of "maturity" in video games. Fortuitously, Jorge and David happened to get this discussion started as I was finishing up Braid.

It is difficult to pin down what constitutes a "mature" game. The ESRB uses the word to describe games with explicit violence, naughty language, or nudity. Others argue that a mature game should speak to societal issues and seek to be something more than a mere diversion from the outside world. Some say that maturity is tied to the rules of a game and the skills necessary to succeed within a limited framework. I suspect there is no single answer, which makes me less guilty about advancing another theory.

Braid's use of artistic, thematic, and structural allusions to other games demonstrates an awareness of both the medium's history and its potential for growth. Braid's references go beyond simple tributes: they are tools that help define, and also challenge, the concept of "gaming literacy." Braid's maturity stems from its engagement with other games, as well as with the players' expectations.

Braid's art evokes Super Mario Bros., which serves to usher experienced gamers into a familiar world while simultaneously paying tribute to the world's antecedents. The most prevalent enemy is a round, two-legged baddie that attacks the player in a brave, yet suicidal, fashion. The landscape is dotted with green pipes that hide killer plants that nip at Tim's heels as he vaults them. A world's end is marked with the traditional flag, castle, and pseudo-reptilian occupant. The game is littered with symbols encoded with years of cultural significance in regards to games: little baddies are for jumping on, spiny plants will hurt you, and the princess is being held in the castle by a dragon. Braid welcomes old players in with honest tributes to fond memories, while also ushering new players into traditions that constitute the foundation of video game culture.

Almost immediately, Braid shifts from a simple tribute to a work dedicated to exploring the themes behind this imagery. Rather than a spiky, flame-breathing Bowser character, Braid's castles are inhabited by a helpful plush-doll-like dinosaur. The Greeter is an aesthetic contrast to a Super Mario-style end-level boss and it becomes clear that the character has no interest, motive, or even ability to act as an antagonist.
The Greeter's soft, stitched-together look gives it a visual honesty that mirrors its thematic purpose. The first time the Greeter suggests that the "princess is in another castle," it is easily written off as a joke reference. However, as the game wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that this simple stuffed doll is speaking the plain truth: not only is there no princess in this castle, there may be no princess at all.

As both a platformer and a video game, Braid is surrounded by other works whose themes have remained remarkably static over the years. Whether it is an Italian plumber or an armored space marine, there is almost always a bad guy, a good guy, and a damsel in distress that needs rescuing. Any obstacles to the aforementioned damsel are attributed to the antagonist as a foregone conclusion. The game avoids this simplistic trope and constructs a morally-ambiguous plot, one that recognizes challenges the player to consider the thematically-mature concept of a world painted in shades of gray.

Because Braid is a game, these visuals and themes are explored through interactivity. It is here that Braid's sophistication is most impressive, as its intertextuality stems from the gameplay itself. Sometimes, this manifests as direct references to other games in the form of timing-based jumps, or the physically nonsensical (yet extremely well-established) action of gaining jump height by spring-boarding off of enemies.

Braid's novel time manipulation mechanic lays bare both the absurdity and beauty of long held gaming conventions. No one needs to read the instructions to learn that fire pits are deadly, but even if they make
a mistake, they can rewind time and bring Tim back to life in a way nearly identical to how one would rescue Mario from an errant jump. The difference in Braid is that, in addition to being mechanically acknowledged, resurrection is also artistically and thematically integrated into the game and the notion of player progress.

For decades, progress in side-scrolling games has been implicitly defined as movement to the right side of the screen. Moving to the left (when it is allowed) has traditionally been a way to "reset" the game and bring back enemies and platforms that the player previously dispatched. In world 4, Braid confronts this idea from a novel perspective: When moving to the right, time travels forward, when moving to the left, time goes back.

However, Braid is most interesting when it uses traditional gameplay conventions to challenge players' the gaming literacy they have acquired over the years. One of the most striking examples of the game's ability to undermine gaming tropes and player expectations is in the "Jumpman" stage. Here, all Braid's intertextual qualities are on display: the level takes its name from Mario's original moniker and contains a structure built in the image of the original Donkey Kong game. An artistic representation of a giant ape resides at the top of the structure, but the thematic allusion is given a twist via the princess's absence.

This notion of the subverting the familiar is made explicit when the player attempts to scale the platforms in the tradition of the original Donkey Kong. No matter how good their jumping and running skills are, it is impossible to overcome this task the way a conical source has trained us to play it. Instead, we must use the game's mechanic to break from tradition. The puzzle requires the player to literally and symbolically venture outside the traditional boundaries of the game. Playing "Jumpman" in Braid is to deconstruct Donkey Kong and then play it in a new way.

Braid walks a thin line between being indulgent self awareness and thoughtful self reflection. While it is not always humble, it a game that explicitly engages with the player's expectations and the works that preceded it. It is a game that mixes deference to tradition while also challenging the complacency that such deference breeds. Striving to maintain its balance with one foot in the past and one in the future, Braid makes a subtle commentary on the culture in which it was created, thereby demonstrating a maturity that transcends sex, gore, and profanity.

Monday, February 8, 2010

EXP Podcast #64: Spartacus: Blood and Pixels

For a long time, many video games have sought to emulate storytelling techniques found in film, particularly the ways a story is visually conveyed. While a growing number of people are questioning the wisdom of this goal, "cinematic" is still usually a complementary term used to describe games. This week, we turn the tables and examine how aesthetic techniques from video games are influencing TV and film. With the help of G. Christopher Williams' article on the video game aesthetics of Spartacus, we discuss both subtle and overt aesthetic contributions games make to works outside of the medium. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the sharing in the comments

Some discussion starters:

- Do any specific films or TV shows strike you as aesthetically inspired by video games?

- Is there a particular "look" that denotes video game aesthetics? Is it still pejorative to liken a film or TV show to a video game?

- Can film and TV appropriate video game aesthetics even though they lack the ability to appropriate the corresponding mechanics?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 22 sec
- "The Video Game Aesthetics of Spartacus: Blood and Sand," by G. Christopher Williams, via PopMatters
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

In Pursuit of Adolescent Genres

My appreciation and interest in Children's Literature was recently piqued by an article titled Juvenile and Adolescent Games by David Carlton of Malvasia Bianca. Sparked by his interest in MySims Agents, a admittedly "childish" game, David reexamines, among other things, the idea of juvenile games as they relate the literary genre. I highly recommend reading the very interesting original piece. As expected, defining and analyzing what makes a juvenile game is no easy task. Anything from Zelda to Bioshock can, in some ways, be considered adolescent. What follows is my own attempt to explore the genre of adolescent videogames.

To begin with, I want to abandon the term 'juvenile' as a genre title. Firstly, it carries too many negative connotations. Secondly, it abandons the existing genres of "children's literature" and "young adult fiction". I understand the idea of categorizing works of art is itself contentious. In a series on modernizing genre, I discussed this conflict extensively. To quickly summarize, I believe current videogame genres are largely useless. Genre itself is still useful however. Genres offer exploratory maps that foster cycles of interpretation, design, and analysis. This creates a valuable conversation across time between consumers and creators. With the use of mechanically descriptive sub-genres, videogames should embrace thematic genre classifications.

That being said, categorizing a 'young adult' game is particularly challenging. As David points out, books are similarly difficult to encapsulate with easily understood monikers. The Harry Potter books, for example, are more intellectually rigorous than many airport-available mystery novels. Likewise, while The Cement Garden features young protagonists, it is most certainly not a children's Novel. David states:

"So, while I can come up with ways to tell that a books isn’t juvenile literature (because of the style of language, because of sex, because of certain other topics), I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with a positive and non-banal description of what it means for a book to be juvenile literature. And that carries over to video games as well."

Videogames are burdened with another barrier to simple classification - gameplay. A children's book may be judged poorly if it includes excessively esoteric vocabulary or inappropriately adult themes. A narrative driven game built for children can also be criticized for including unnecessarily difficult or complex gameplay. This is not to say exactly how difficult a game should be, but these concerns should be taken into account while judging young adult and children's games.
There is no easy way to know what makes an adolescent videogame - which is part of the fun. Genres are not well defined outlines. A genre is a commonly recognized suite of thematic and structural decisions shaped by the creator's intentions. A skilled auteur may toy with conventions, including and abandoning them as she sees fit, responding to and building upon a genre, while commenting on society and culture along the way. As such, for some analysis, it may be useful to divorce game mechanics from narrative themes.

The mechanics of a children's game should be appropriate for its target audience. A younger audience may not have the educational or gaming experience to easily interpret and implement complex mechanics. Similar to literary reading levels, this does not preclude adult enjoyment. A game may have many mechanical layers, satisfying a young and old audience at the same time. Alternatively, simply mechanics can be implemented in robust ways by an older gaming audience, giving them complexity without confusing the younger players.

Similar to literature, young adult and children's games should share common thematic elements. We should see literary conventions repeat themselves within their videogame genre counterparts. As David points out, many kids books include young protagonists, often coming of age or having an adventure free of familial relationships. Again, this need not be the case. These are merely several, albeit very common, elements from a suite of options. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a notable literary exception from the young protagonist trope. It is a children's novel with an adult protagonist and themes of parenting. It does, however, use many genre conventions to its benefit. Children's games can achieve this same diversity while safely building upon an existing body of work.
The thematic elements of one genre can absolutely bleed into another. I have discussed the 'lack of family' trope in videogames once before. Similarly, the 'coming of age' tale shares storytelling characteristics with the common game structures that gradually empower players. So, while I agree with David that Bioshock has similar genre characteristics, its adult themes and mechanics firmly separate it from the young adult genre.

Zelda, on the other hand, is certainly a young adult game. I'm in agreement with David when he says "they're about boys growing up (literally, in the case of Ocarina), forced to be men a little earlier than they’d like to, but rising to the occasion, finding out who they really are, finding unexpected depths inside themselves." Zelda informs other young adult games, and can be analyzed alongside other young adult novels like A Wizard of Earthsea and Sabriel.
Accordingly, we can analyze and critique games with their genre in mind. Lucidity, for example, is thematically a perfect children's game. It's mechanics, however, are far too punishing for success amongst the appropriate demographic. Final Fantasy VIII is an excellent young adult story with a great deal to say about family, friends, school, and growing up. Like J.M. Barrie's novelization of Peter Pan however, some of the more adult themes may be inappropriate for younger audiences.

Genre boundaries are porous, videogame genres even more so. The relative age of the medium is such that no broad repertoire of masterful children's and young adult works exist. While there are plenty of childish games out there, few are considered classics. Children's games as they exist now, including MySims Agents, are largely discredited. Children's literature has overcome some of these prejudices and the videogame medium must do the same. Game's like Little King's Story, seek to break the mold, entertain multiple age groups, and contribute to a larger cultural conversation about growing up and the lessons that come with age. With genre in mind, games and games criticism only improve.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Last week, I called The Beatles: Rock Band an exercise in the "retelling of cultural myths." In the comments, Tesh was right to point out that:
Myths have a long and storied history in human culture. If they were mere recitations of facts and dates, they would be as dry as that lame high school history class.
This is a great point, and one that "the dusty science" (as I like to call history) would do well to remember. Even so, while I applaud the game's beautiful version of the legend, I remain ambivalent about its portrayal of the band. Specifically, I am unsure about the game's ability to appeal to people unfamiliar with The Beatles. For devotees, it is the perfect opportunity experience the band in an unprecedented way. But for folks who who come to the experience uninitiated, the game offers little in the way of explaining and contextualizing The Beatles' appeal and success.

The Beatles: Rock Band is one of the few mainstream games about actual historical figures, but it only conveys their history in vague, sparse ways. With a few modifications (some simple, others drastic, and all admittedly "blue sky") The Beatles: Rock Band could teach history in a way far more captivating than the dreaded professorial lecture.

Ironically, The Beatles: Rock Band is prevented from imparting world and music history by its heritage in gaming history. Like so many other titles, The Beatles: Rock Band clings to the old convention of "unlockable" content. As I have argued before, unlockables are a largely vestigial trait in most modern games. In The Beatles: Rock Band, this old practice crosses the line from useless to damaging: There is actually a fair amount of rare and informative Beatles material contained in the game, but it is all hidden behind gameplay challenges and locked menus, some of which actually say "Secret."

Hiding this material does a disservice to everyone, be they new, casual, or devoted fans. Not having the time or the skill to achieve five-star ratings in each song should not prevent someone learning about the band. Furthermore, placing obstacles in front of people who know little about the The Beatles and the history surrounding them does little to pique their interest. Those interested in finger-blistering challenge could be accommodated through achievements and trophies. To truly cultivate the game's identity as a shrine to the band, it needs to appeal to both the faithful and new converts. As organized and presented, the songs cannot convey The Beatles' story on their own, and it would be more fruitful to weave the historical material in throughout the game.

While a "story mode" already exists, I envision a far more audacious one that better suits such a title. Integrating videos and photos in-between songs would be start, but there is the potential for a much more comprehensive educational and entertainment experience. Imagine interstitial scenes between songs that take a form similar to that of the map scenes in the Indiana Jones movies: The Beatles would be represented by Union Jack-colored line superimposed onto a broader historical time line. As the line travels through time, it contextualizes The Beatles within the culture in which they created their music: the line passes through Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream," darts between a photo of shrill teenybopper and a Vietnam soldier, and wades through the Leftist upheavals of 1968.

At the same time, we can see parallel and tangential lines that sometimes intersect or braid themselves around The Beatles. These are the lines of other musicians and can be followed to examine their relationship to The Beatles. Without any grounding in musical or socio-political history, "Back in the U.S.S.R." is little more than a jaunty tune. However, a true "story" mode could broaden the player's understanding.

Imagine that the player diverges from The Beatles to briefly visit Chuck Berry:

After that, the player jumps to another musical line running alongside the main Beatles line, and spends some time with the Beach Boys:

The player flies past stock footage of Soviet Soldiers, arriving at "Back in the U.S.S.R" with a more holistic understanding of the song, both musically and culturally:

The song, one of my personal favorites, is a delicious mix of musical intertextuality and wry cultural humor. As a thought exercise, I tried to think up a modern adaptation of the song: Perhaps one in which Beyonce channels Tina Turner and samples a Garth Brooks song to sing a ballad to her Iranian boyfriend? Or maybe one in which U2 does a gangster-rap inspired tribute to Venezuela? While such meditations are absurd, they are also predicated on an understanding of the song's contemporaneous subtexts. Without historical grounding, it's only rock 'n roll.

Few bands have spawned the kind of mythos that surrounds The Beatles, and the the game is dedicated to recreating and offering up the legend for our enjoyment. It is focused so tightly on that legend that I fear it trades primarily on a sense of nostalgia that many players lack. Without an understanding of The Beatles and the world in which they created music, the game begins to resemble more traditional rhythm games, like Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero, in which the player jumps from song to song, unaware of the circumstances in which the songs were birthed.

The Beatles: Rock Band hints at the promise of a new way to present history, one that combines the best aspects of literature, documentaries, and video games. In an scholarly sense, I look forward to using games in an academic milieu outside of a purely "games studies" context. We have reached the point where we can start viewing games not only as objects to analyze, but as tools to examine the culture in which they exist.

Most importantly, I know that an interactive, musical journey through history would be far more engaging than any Power Point-lecture I could cobble together.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

EXP Podcast #63: Halo Podcast Evolved

To his personal shame, Scott had never played any of the Halo games. So we decided to drop into the franchise from orbit, pull Halo one from cryo, and mount up as Master Chief. Scott and I have just finished playing the first two Halos (on Legendary mode) and want to take a moment to discuss our thoughts on the birth of a truly epic franchise. Podcast topics this week include the dangers of zombies, complex level design growing pains, purple corridors, and the birth of a Spartan legend. We encourage you to leave your own thoughts on the franchise in the comments section below, though please avoid Halo 3/ODST spoilers.

Discussion Topics:

- How did you first feel about Halo 1 and 2 when you first played them.

- Is it hard to visit older titles? Do you find past mistakes become more tiresome? Do sequels forever take the place of their predecessors?

- How did Bungie manage to construct such a important franchise with such an influence on the history of game development? How well does the beginning of the franchise hold up today?

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: 36 min 25 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Sensationalist: The Sentimental 'Mass Effect 2'

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

Spoiler Pirate says "Yarrr! There be spoilers ahead!

Although the destruction of Normandy 1 occurs in the first five minutes of Mass Effect 2, Bioware rightly tried their best to keep the segment under wraps. For those who have played the first game, the reveal is powerful. In the scene, an enemy vessel carves into Commander Shepard's ship, ripping it apart. She ensures her crew's safety, walking through zero-g carnage to reach Joker, her ace pilot. More than establishing a fast-paced tonally dramatic introduction, Mass Effect 2 quickly establishes its intent to evoke nostalgia for the game's first iteration. By stressing the importance of the first game within the world and its characters, Bioware elicits sentimentality with an unprecedented success.
Despite the multitudes of sequels, most games do not reminisce on the preceding title. On the contrary, sequels often seem to divorce themselves from, or at least ignore, their predecessors. Final Fantasy X-2 for example, the first real sequel in the Final Fantasy series, seems more disparate to FFX than it does to FFIX. The mechanics change dramatically between the two titles and, while the plot centers on pre-established characters, the two games are tonally inconsistent. FFX-2 is a dancing musical number compared to the angst-driven drama of FFX. Similarly, while Assassin's Creed 2 includes some remnants of Altair's story arc, Desmond and Ezio exist independently, neither showing any sign of interest in Altair. While gameplay is similar, the environment is not.

Alternatively, complete consistency between two games merely elongates one experience without evoking any sense of nostalgia. The Halo, God of War, and Gears of War franchises iterate slightly between each title, mostly maintaining one narrative arc and mechanical experience across multiple games. While a few twists remind the player of past narrative events, the games stand largely as one whole. Mass Effect 2 maneuvers between these two limitations, inconsistency and regularity, by demarcating the relationship between the two games with an obvious metaphor - the demolition and reconstruction of the Normandy.
Appropriately, an optional side quest visit to the wreckage of Normandy 1 is included as free DLC content for those purchasing new copies of ME2. The entire sequence includes no combat, serving only to build sentimentality. Exploring the rubble for the dog tags of missing crew members, each with their own name, Shepard recalls still images from the first game. She also places a monument to those who lost their lives under her command. The moment is a silent and private affair, a narrative opportunity built solely to explore sentimentality.

Commander's Shepard's interactions with old crew members and early dialogue options also develop nostalgia for past experiences. When first regaining consciousness, Shepard may inquire about the status of her past team members. When talking to Lt. Anderson and Joker, she may also probe further into the whereabouts of her old friends. While they have all moved on, no one reoccurring character is unaffected by their past. Garrus, Joker, Anderson and others express longing for the halcyon days working for the Alliance. Even Doctor Chakwas, a relatively insignificant NPC from the first Mass Effect, joins Shepard's crew. If selected, Shepard joins the doctor for a drink, reminiscing about bygone days and their shared memories.
While many games have created nostalgia by referencing the games we grew up on, Mass Effect 2 evokes sentimentality by putting Commander Shepard through the same set of emotions. Her first mission is markedly strange without her loyal crew, and she expresses this same concern. Having to actively search out recruits dramatizes the absence of those who joined her in the first game out of a common sense of purpose. Dialogue options that express weary concern about her crew mirror my own hesitancy with a new cast of characters. Players who delve into the game's sentimentality may also reward themselves with Shepard's collection of model ships from ME1, her own keep sake and memorial to the past.

For those unable to import ME1 profiles into ME2, the experience could be very different. The mechanical and interface alterations may not evoke sentimentality from any player, but perhaps the scatted sci-fi references dotted around ME2 may serve to evoke nostalgia - in this case, for Firefly and Star Trek. Regardless, Shepard's consistent concern for past crew members, her numerous dialogue options that encourage reminiscence, and her encounters with old friends, should resonate with new and old players alike. Bioware succeeds in evoking sentimentality by doing what so many games have failed to do: making the first game clearly meaningful to the protagonist and her compatriots. It is a form of expert world-building few developers have even approached and Bioware should be lauded for it appropriately.