Wednesday, June 30, 2010

EXP Podcast #84: Dropping in on ODST

“Alright Browncoats: we break atmo in five minutes and we’ve got a whole mess of ruttin’ hostiles lining up to meet us. Get your fancy pants and grab your guns, we don’t want to disappoint our hosts. Stick together, make your shots count and everything will be shiny...”

Oh, sorry everybody. I think I’m getting my sci-fi universes mixed up. But if you’ve played Halo 3: ODST, you probably understand. This week, Jorge and I discuss this unique entry in the Halo franchise. Part expansion pack, part sequel, and part spin-off, ODST is an interesting beast. We discuss everything from the mission structure, the gameplay, and the storytelling approach. As always, feel free to drop into the comments with your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- For those of you who played it, what did you think? How does ODST compare with the Master Chief trilogy?

- Did the story and its characters draw you into the plot? What are your thoughts on the silent protagonist and the rest of the crew?

- ODST is a rare example of a “spin-off” game: it uses an established mythology and gameplay system as a base from which to branch off into something new. What other franchises would yield enjoyable spin-offs?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 34 min 06 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Sensationalist: To Be Young

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.

Many would give all they own to find the fountain of youth, the fabled spring that will grant eternal health and vigor to whomever drinks its water. But reversing the affects of time does not actually recreate youth. There is an essence to childhood entirely its own - being young does not just mean you have low cholesterol. Being a kid, particularly a small child, is at times frustrating, exhilarating, confusing, and joyous. Capturing such a strange emotional state in a videogame is no easy task.

What sensations are we to equate with childhood? Many sensations reoccur across children's literature, from spry curiosity to social shame. There is also a common feeling of isolation from adults. Adults are larger, more experienced, and carry the weight of authority. A small kid can feel alienated and undervalued, despite feeling as much like an agency wielding individual as her parents. Who has never felt trapped by adolescence? As many of us can remember, navigating a confusing world run by adults can be a disheartening experience.
No game evokes a stronger sense of child-like frailty than Ico. The game's titular protagonist is a small boy in a clearly adult-sized castle. His movements always seem a little more strained than usual, and the sound of his panting and huffing depict a child out of his league. Ico, unlike many other videogame heroes, is constantly struggling to overcome his stature. A very early Sensationalist post discussed this very topic in greater detail. Suffice it to say this protagonist evokes, through sound and visuals, the sensation of being overwhelmed and inexperienced - the reality a child would face in such a dangerous situation.

Nintendo similarly captures this feeling of dwarfed ability in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. While Link is still a very capable warrior, his abilities are altered depending on his physical form. In the first game, young link can fit through small passages, but also cowers under his shield instead of wearing it properly. In Majora's Mask, the citizens of Clocktown make reference to Link as a young "deku scrub," calling him out and isolating him from his peers. Guards will not allow Link to leave town as he is just a boy, despite his many accomplishments. He can, however, ingratiate himself amongst another band of young miscreants, evoking a sense of youth comraderie - a pleasant result of unfortunate circumstances. Until Link can change his physical form, being a child means navigating an adult world with very particular strategies.
The sense of separation between kids and adults also appears in Double Fine's Psychonauts. Raz, the game's protagonist, joins a psychic training summer camp as an effort to prove himself to his father. The aesthetics of the game are imaginative romps through distorted environments. One level combines Raz's childhood memories of a circus with another characters childhood fears of his butcher father. In Psychonauts, imagined anxieties become real, mirroring the uneasy fantasies of children. In these mindscapes, adults become caricatures of themselves. For example, the road crew in The Milk Man Conspiracy level are mockeries of FBI agents and roadside workers, giving themselves authority with strange and arbitrary symbols. As a child, adults can seem just as strange as the over-the-top inhabitants of Psychonauts.
Raz enters the world of adulthood eagerly. Perhaps a child's perpetual curiosity and forward progress is played out mechanically in Lucidity from Lucas Arts. Sofi, the game's little girl protagonist, is always happily skipping forward. Players must place objects in her path, steering her clear of hazards and obstacles. While the mechanics make the player less like a child and more like Sofi's guardian, the aesthetics of the game beautifully evoke a child-like perception of reality. Lucidity is very much like a children's novel dealing with mature themes. As Sofi confronts the death of her grandmother, players feel a heightened sense of anxiety and confusion in increasingly difficult levels. When Sofi cowers in fear at an encroaching darkness, and players are reminded of the tragedy for which the game is a metaphor, the game evokes some of the very adult emotions children wrestle with as they mature.
One aspect of growing up is confronting adult ideas, sometimes too soon, and learning about consequence. Fable 2 conveys a child's involvement in adult affairs with the games aptly named introduction, "Childhood." The player's decisions, while innocuous for a child, have long lasting consequences many years later. Tale of Tales creates an even deeper sense of child-like exploration coupled with deep foreboding in The Path, a dark retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Robin, the youngest of six playable sisters featured in the game, is just nine years old. She approaches objects innocently, and objects we associate with adult ideas - like bullet casings - she may bypass altogether. Yet as she plays in this strange environment, her actions hint at the woman she may become and any number of tragedies that might befall her. Amazingly, the game evokes a sense of child-like wonder right alongside a child-like fear of the mysterious and unknown.
It is inherently difficult to depict the experience of youth from an adult perspective. But that need not be our goal. Adolescence is inextricably tied to our perceptions about adulthood. While there are quite a few games that feature children gleefully exploring their world, some even recreating the joyful pleasure of independent wandering (Pokemon for example), few conjure the complex emotions of youth in transition.

None of my examples should be considered "coming of age" tales per se. Yet all of them portray youth in relation to growth, both physical and emotional. They successfully isolate small aspects of childhood and with them engender interesting emotions. They open a mixed bag of sensations, from imaginative play to weary frustration, and give us a chance to be young again.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Conventional Storytelling

For those of you that have not already heard it, Michael Abbott's recently posted a great interview with author Tom Bissell. It is great hearing smart minds wrestle with the best way to articulate the artistry in games. Much of the conversation dealt with what Tom referred to as the "inevitable tension" in games: the relationship between their gameplay and their developer-authored plot.

Both Michael and Tom wandered back and forth between lamenting the prevalence of arbitrary collection tasks and fetch quests in story-driven games and lauding games for dealing with these conventions in clever ways. In many ways, their conversation articulated the growing pains of a medium trying to find its identity.

In hopes of furthering the understanding of that identity, I would like to suggest that it is time we shift our thinking away from how games "disguise" gameplay conventions. As both Michael and Tom point out, in the right hands, these rule systems tell stories in a way unlike any other art form. Instead of expecting the plot to justify the gameplay, we should embrace the gameplay conventions and their narrative potential. Rather than expecting a game's ludic conventions to fit an authored plot, we should expect the plot to draw its strength from the gameplay.

Instead of thinking of specific gaming tropes as "good" or "bad," we should look at how they convey the story. In the interview, Tom comments that "our reigning method of gameplay is to say 'Here's a story and here's an obstacle course that the recipient of the story has to endure to see more of the story'" (36:48). Could this same charge not be leveled at the conventions in any other medium? Is the dense prose of Herman Melville not an obstacle course that tests our linguistic skills? Is the slow pacing and tantalizing buildup of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly not an obstacle course for our patience? Is the contrivance of a Shakespearean soliloquy not an obstacle course that tests our suspension of disbelief?

Of course, video games differ from these examples in that their metaphorical obstacle courses are often literal. Players must literally test their agility and reflexes to experience the story. In many games, the most complex story is the way in which the player gains a mastery over their environment and the best games have authored plots that mold themselves around this process.

Tom and I agree that Portal is an outstanding piece of storytelling. However, it is an obstacle course at every level: the player must navigate a world that requires both mental and physical skill. At the same time, the themes of the world are challenging the player's perception and facilitating their empathy with their avatar. It is an exquisite marriage of plot and gameplay, but it is one that relies on gameplay. At its core, Portal is a story about transcending the conventional ways of dealing with space. Aperture Science is an entertaining backdrop that serves mainly to enhance that concept.

Shadow of the Colossus blends the conventions of games as obstacle courses with the old trope of the "boss battle" to convey a story about blind perseverance in the face of overwhelming opposition. The battles require poise under pressure. The player must be intelligent and confident when attacking and screen out distractions that might cause them to miss a killing blow. At the same time, the story supports these themes by slowly revealing that Wander is screening out the moral ambiguity of his mission. The single-mindedness of the gameplay is reflected by the unsettling, yet understandable focus of the character.

Finally, in Mirror's Edge, uses one of the oldest gaming conventions to tell its story: platforming. Like her long-lost cousin, Mario, Faith undermines her enemies by refusing to play to their strengths. Instead of fighting them face to face, the successful player will continually dance around shotgun wielding soldiers. Instead of meeting enemies on level ground, players can vault across buildings and over cars to negate their enemies' advantages. In a world defined by barriers and clean lines, the player finds shortcuts that subvert the meticulously crafted buildings. Faith and her small band of clever resistance fighters reflect this convention: they fight their opponents by exploiting weaknesses rather than trying to match power.

Both Michael and Tom shared a familiar sense of exasperation and admiration when discussing Red Dead Redemption. For both of them the game reached the precipice of a transcendent storytelling experience only to jar them back to reality with incongruities between the gameplay and plot. For Michael and Tom, the culprit was a "fetch quest" in the middle of a heated chase.

It is a shame this happened, but I am hesitant to vilify the fetch quest in this situation. It was only performing its duty and playing to the strengths of the medium: exploration and emergent storytelling. By failing to defer to the gameplay narrative, the plot was the source of its own undoing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

EXP Podcast #83: E3 2010 Restrospective

This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo has come and gone, leaving in its wake rumors, exciting announcements, technical innovations, and underpaid "booth babes." I was fortunate enough to attend the three day event, getting to see some unreleased creations a few months early and bask in corporate self-aggrandizement. This week on the podcast, Scott and I discuss the ins-and-outs of E3, from motion controls and 3D technology, to Zelda and SOCOM 4. Let us know your thoughts in on all the E3 announcements in the comments section below.

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: 38 mins 59 secs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks Read more!

Ed. note: I know, Twilight Princess is a Zelda game on the Wii. Also, 3DS ships March 2011, not this fall. Sorry to get your hopes up.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Motion in Public

The Nintendo Wii launched nearly four years ago and it undoubtedly changed how we view and approach gaming. Even now, its influence is demonstrably strong on Microsoft and Sony. This fall, both companies are launching their own motion control hardware, wrangling in the remaining consumers eager to shake their dongle or their booty at the TV.

For some time now I have considered myself a motion control skeptic. The household Wii gets so little use, it has given me little reason to believe the PS Move of Kinect will herald in the dawn of a new age in interactivity. After seeing the merchandise at this year's E3, and given some brief hands on (and off) time with both devices, my opinion has swayed. Motion controls interest me not for the stellar "hard core" titles in the works, but for the possibility they mark a growing trend in normalizing public play.

One of my problems with motion controls is their disconnect between their marketing and their actual purpose. Sony and Microsoft would have us believe the Move and Kinect are technological advancements, leaps forward along a linear progression for the game's industry. At long last, the future is nigh upon us and its name is what exactly? Do these devices solve a long established problem for gamers? Have we been tragically confined to the counter-immersive system of buttons? No, of course not. For the vast majority of current gamers, the status quo is working just fine.
We should call the Move and Kinect what they are: as of yet untested methods of interaction with digital realms, just two among many. They are optional and on occasion, like all input methods, completely superfluous. There will certainly be great games that require motion tracking, but they will not replace or define the industry. Sony seems keenly aware of this fact, and many of the titles that will feature Move compatibility will also include non-Move options on the same disc.

Accessibility is a buzzword around motion controls. By responding to an individuals bodily movement instead of their dexterous fingers, newcomers to gaming may find the systems more hospitable. This is a silly idea. One, there are already a large catalog of "noob" friendly games designed with that purpose in mind. It is actually a bit insulting to presume your non-gaming friends are so absurdly ignorant that only waving their arms about in front of the screen will allow them to enjoy gaming. Secondly, there are serious accessibility concerns with this new hardware. We know little about how well the Move and the Kinect can pick up subtle movements from less-abled players. There are even doubts Kinect can recognize someone sitting down - sad news for those unable to stand on their own.
Accessibility is increased, however, with two elements of motion control: transparency and public play. Put simply, anyone unfamiliar with gaming can see how an individuals actions correlate to on-screen action. Most importantly, it normalizes a form of public recreation. At E3 I saw grown adults, many in work attire, happily flailing about with plenty of strangers watching their every move. They were playing, in public, and did not seem even slightly self-conscious. I do not think this behavior would be so readily accepted ten years ago. The Move, and the Kinect even more so, widen the visible space and lay bare the act of play for its own sake.

Both motion controls are in some ways targeted towards an adult audience. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play and an expert on the science of play, affirms the notion that adult play, unattached from specific goals, is necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle:

"Adults, for example, who have either forgotten or lost its joys, or put play in their back pocket, are people who, as a result of their own adult play deprivation regardless of how much play they may have had as kids, will be rigid, narrow in their thinking, brittle in their response to stress, and much less open to handling the curve balls life throws us."

Humans are inclined towards play, even as adults. Too often we ignore opportunities for play, or convert play opportunities into competitive and goal oriented tasks. Keeping monthly totals for how long you have walked may help you maintain an exercise routine, but it might also sap the activity of playful vigor. Opening up public space for play is incredibly valuable in fitting play into our schedules, which is why I liked Artist Bruno Taylor's installation of a swing set at a bus stop (top). Public play space reminds us to take a break now and then. Motion controls offer the possibility of normalized recreation, among friends and in our own home, widening and creating new venues for play, especially for non-gamers.

Dance Dance Revolution
exposed entertainment years ago, but now games like Dance Central from Harmonix may openly display revelry to a wider audience, thereby encouraging participation. Harmonix also continues to accomplish this with Rockband, getting people to sing in front of their friends loudly, openly, and with only a little bit of shame if any.
Converting your living room into a stage may have a lasting affect. Maybe someone more comfortable performing in front of friends, will find themselves performing better in other social situations. Maybe someone willing to "drop it like its hot" in Dance Central will more easily overcome stressful situations at the office. Even without a wide range of must-purchase software in the near future, we should look forward to the unforeseen consequences of normalized public play. Motion controls may not change the games industry, but they might just change how we all incorporate play into our day-to-day lives. Now that is a prospect that will get me moving.

Friday, June 18, 2010

E3 State of Mind

As E3 week wraps up, I find myself with conflicting thoughts on its importance. It is obviously a thinly-disguised, week-long commercial created to draw players into the hype vortex. Even so, I (and many others, judging by my Twitter stream) just can't help but absorb every piece of carefully packaged news.

E3 lets us lust after the newest, shiniest toys but it also serves as an important cultural event for gaming. For better or worse, E3 possesses specific traits that both mirror and define the culture of a specific subset of gamers.


Since its inception, E3 has provided us with the soap opera-style drama that all us sophisticated critics decry, but secretly enjoy. One of my favorite examples comes from way back in the distant year of 1995. Sega came to E3 looking to win the fifth-generation console war through an blitzkrieg strategy. Instead of its fall release date, they shocked everyone by revealing that, rather than the expected fall release date, the Saturn would be available in the US immediately. Not to be outdone, Sony turned around and announced that their upcoming PlayStation would retail for a full $100 less than the Saturn.

These types of machinations both feed off and contribute to the unusual culture of secrecy in video game culture. No other form of art or entertainment is as clandestine. Only in the gaming world would someone like David Jaffe explicitly deny working on a new Twisted Metal game only to then reveal at E3 that he was doing exactly that. It would be like Michael Bay disavowing knowledge of a new Transformers movie.

Regardless of their necessity, E3 drama provides a spark of unpredictability that appeals to our sensationalist tendencies. Today's surprises become tomorrow's stories, which in turn help define gaming culture.

Heroes and Villains

Perhaps no other event is as influential in defining our relationship with game companies. The minute a key note ends, generalized, convenient narratives begin to form about companies and their relationship to gamers.

This year, Nintendo did an about-face away from its soccer-mom oriented strategy and delivered a suite of traditional games targeted at a traditional audience. A lineup that included Zelda, Kid Icarus, Donkey Kong, and Samus was accompanied by what appears to be the first and only elegant 3D gaming solution. In a strange twist, gamers that once felt left behind during the Wii's ascendancy can now look at Nintendo as a safe harbor in which to wait out the growing storm of slap-dash motion control and 3D gimmickry being introduced by Sony and Microsoft.

Microsoft, the champion of the "hardcore" gamer, now casts its eye towards Nintendo territory. However, there seems to be an undercurrent of worry among many that expanding the Xbox empire into Wii-land will mean taking on the very characteristics that have fundamentally changed Nintendo's identity. After all, janky motion-control minigames in 1080p are ultimately just as shallow as janky motion-control minigames in 480p.

Off to the side, we have the remains of a vast empire that brought down by its own hubris. By launching an expensive, technically complex, and thinly supported console, Sony and the PlayStation 3 embody many of the factors that led to Sega and the Saturn's downfall. Now, a once-mighty leader is relegated to a defensive strategy of iteration rather than innovation. Improving the Wii Remote and emulating Xbox Live are logical goals, but it may be some time before Sony regains its heroic posture.

Of course, there is always PC gaming. Standing in the corner, shaking its head with a knowing grin, it waits for the consoles to catch up to its technology and Internet-focused approach. Sony's partnership with Valve, PC gaming's messiah, hints at a future where difference between today's heroes may be largely be in name only.

E is for Exclusive

Perhaps the strangest thing about E3 is that it caters to a small, yet extremely vocal population of gamers. Some might call them "core" but I think another apt (perhaps less complementary) title is "stereotypical." While the number of Farmville players likely dwarfs the number of World of Warcraft, Halo, and Call of Duty players combined, Facebook is basically a non-entity at the show. Zynga may have been the bogeyman at GDC 2010, but at E3 it is a ghost.

E3 is an event for geeks dedicated to the concept of gaming as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s: a separate subculture that required specialized knowledge and enthusiasm. Theirs is a world of longstanding game designs, an emphasis on technology, and preference towards dedicated gaming experiences. E3 is a place for people to gather and defend themselves against perceived attacks by the rise of "casual" games and social media.

More innocently, it is a time for these folks to share a common experience. People usually separated by platform or genre come together to discuss the daily bombshells and reminisce on those of years past. Together, we suffer through the vacuous, stilted PR-speak and share an ironic eye roll at the expense of the suits.

On some level, we know that E3 is monstrously silly, but at the same time we must recognize that its silliness is fed by aspects of the culture we help create. Through some combination of our attention and our money, we tacitly endorse E3 as a defining force in the culture surrounding games. It should not be written off as pure fluff, as it is clear that it reflects and influences the way we think of the medium, but at the same time we cannot take it too seriously. Secrets are titillating but ultimately not very meaningful. The heroic "winners" and villainous "losers" are defined by quarterly earnings, not bloggers. Thinking of E3 as a "gaming" event is myopic in today's demographics.

Still there is something fun about the whole bloated, awkward spectacle. Of course I'm sure sitting through the Kennedy incident was only fun in retrospect.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

EXP Podcast #82: Space Jesus

While they may not always do so in the most graceful fashion, even even the most mainstream games address complex issues like sex and violence. Religion, however, remains a relatively understudied topic. This week, we draw inspiration from Richard Clark and Jason Killingsworth, two authors who examine the ways religion is manifested in games and how theology impacts our relationship with them. Over the course of the discussion we touch upon faith as a game mechanic, how religion impacts cultural expression, the deity’s of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as the inspiration for this episode’s silly title. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- In which games has religion played a major role?

- Can issues like faith and spirituality be conveyed with game systems or should religion be explored through thematic details?

- How does your religious background affect your response to religion in games? How do you want to see the subject addressed, if at all?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 31 min 53 sec
- “Not Beyond Belief - How Religion And Gaming Interact,” by Richard Clark, via Gamasutra
- “In Your Game We Play,” by Jason Killingsworth
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fate and the Frontier

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as well as minor spoilers for Red Dead Redemption.

The mythological American West is a unique venue for protagonists. The border lands create opportunities to transgress normative behavior, shake up the onset of civilization, and eek out a dangerous living in a lawless land. But it is also a doomed environment. From our modern perspective, we know how the frontier ends. Thus, the heroes of Westerns often represent a nostalgic moment in time, before civilization claimed the unknown for itself. Red Dead Redemption's John Marston sits uncomfortably in this position, caught between the freedom of an open world game and the traditional fate of the tragic Western martyr.

Rockstar has successfully developed a character with all the aesthetic fixings associated with iconic Western outlaws. John Marston is a criminal with a heart of gold. Like the leads of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he is a charming and relatively honorable fellow. His gruff voice, rugged physical features, and soiled attire mirror the likes of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Russel Crow in the 3:10 to Yuma remake. Visually speaking, he is well representative of the Western protagonists we know and love.

One of the most interesting aspects of Western heroes is their common inability to escape their past identity and live in the modern world. John Ford's two films, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance best exemplify this characteristic. Both films star John Wayne as a melancholy hero from bygone days. Ethan Edwards of The Searchers is an ex-confederate soldier with a questionable past. Unable to settle down, he spends years in a fanatical pursuit of his kidnapped niece, only to end up once again aimless on the rapidly changing frontier. Similarly, Tom Doniphon of Liberty Valance is a traditional gun-toting cowboy with little faith in the power of law and honorable conduct to tame the west. In an act of sacrifice, Tom commits an unlawful murder and in doing so, speeds up the process of Western civilization. As a result, Tom eventually dies secluded and alone. John Wayne's characters expertly straddled the space between historical inevitability and idealized freedom.
From Doc of Tombstone, who dies with his boots off, to reluctant murderer William Munny of Unforgiven, Western heroes are victims of fate and their own past, and they often know it. As Chris Adams remarks at the end of The Magnificent Seven: "We lost. We always lose." But this is where Red Dead deviates slightly from the norm. Marston never seems aware of the unique venue in which he finds himself. I have yet to see any inkling of awareness of what he represents.

I should say, I have not yet finished Red Dead Redemption. Thanks to an inadvertent spoiler, however, I do know of John Marston's fate. How well the conclusion succeeds remains to be seen. Thus far, however, Marston stills seems to exist half in the world of Western tragedy and half in the realm of video game freedom.

Although Marston certainly has a criminal past, he also seems just as capable of living in the modern world as the old. According to the well established and geographically settled Bonnie MacFarlane, he would do just as well as a cattle rancher than as an outlaw. Similarly, his proficiency in hocking the snake-oil remedies of N.W. Dickens seems to indicate at least a fluid relationship with modern-day hucksters. He could also just as easily join the Marshall's attempt establishing the rule of law, considering how skilled he is with dispensing justice.
A more interesting aspect of his character, however, is its relationship to the player. In a player-controlled open-world environment, Marston can behave in an assortment of different ways. He can be an excessive drinker who assaults women, cheats as poker, and murders law men indiscriminately. Or he can be an upstanding citizen, coming to the rescue of helpless citizens, eager to tie up criminals and let the law sort them out. His character is up to the player - until it isn't.

Key story elements are immutable. John Marston will always help N.W. Dickson con easily exploitable farm hands, no matter how much it conflicts with the moral character of a traditional cowboy. Also, he will always ask Bonnie to one day buy some cattle off of her to start a ranch, even if players have already resigned him to a life of crime. These moments of conflicting stories can be unsettling, particularly when they contrast so starkly with characters in other Westerns.

Red Dead Redemption need not rehash old Western stories. I am perfectly fine with a diversely skilled protagonist, with a complex morality system. Yet Marston does share many similarities with his genre compatriots. While his fate might be sealed, his character is not packaged as such. On the frontier, where anything goes, destiny is a powerful narrative tool. Thus far, it seems wasted on the likes of John Marston, a man caught between being a Western hero, a modern hero, and our own playable character.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Prince's Story

This post contains spoilers for the movie and the game: The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Most of the time, video game movies buckle under the pressure of creating solid plots, as some of the most popular games also have some of the flimsiest premises. Video games engage the audience by involving them in the action, a luxury that films do not have. Instead, a movie has to draw its audience in with a compelling plot or relatable characters. Since games often suffer from a dearth of such things, franchises like Super Mario and Street Fighter must be altered, padded, and reworked to make it to the theater. Often the end results are altered beyond recognition and appeal.

The Sands of Time breaks from this pattern in a surprising way. Instead of having to expand the game's story into something that can carry a movie, the film was pressed into simplifying the game's narrative.

The Sands of Time is game that deals directly with the medium's elasticity. Although many games have liner plots, their execution is one of looping experimentation. Players fail certain challenges or replay levels, adding their story on top of the one the designer creates. Rewinding time is simply an immediate, stylized representation of the story a player is implicitly telling in a game like Mario.

Instead of ignoring this complex phenomenon, the game addresses it by adding another layer of authorial control to the story. Because the Prince is narrating the story in hindsight, he is able to comment on the scripted events as well as the player's modifications. Both the player and the Prince are aware of the fact that you just slipped off a ledge to your doom. Instead of ignoring it, he explains "That's not what really happened," or "Let me begin again," mirroring the internal knowledge of the player. We know that is not how the story is "really" supposed to go, yet it is undeniable that those events transpired.

By narrating the game, the Prince is confirming what we already know: the Prince will get through adventure and we are to enact this forgone conclusion. The tension comes from the physical challenge of reaching the end, rather than the possibility of that end not existing. Additionally, the looping nature of the game symbolizes the many facets of storytelling. Each person recounts the past in a slightly different way, even if the end result is the same. As the game shows, there are nearly infinite ways to remember the past and recount history. In the film there is no narrator, we are meant to feel as if we were Dastan, and we are given knowledge as he learns it. Because we are locked into one perspective, the film presents itself as the one true version of a single story, something the game undermines with every button push.

Even when the player is not actively replaying events, they are engaged in interpreting the game's plot. The mysterious sanctuaries the Prince stumbles into give him strength, yet are never explained. Farah claims not to notice when the prince disappears, which could make them hallucinations or magical events. The exact nature of Farah and the Prince's relationship is also debatable. While it appears they become lovers, their union takes place in what could easily be a dream.

Regardless of what actually happens, everything is reset at end when the Prince rewinds time to prevent the circumstances that brought them together. Unlike his movie alter-ego, the Prince is a hero who does not get the girl and ride off into the sunset. While the Farah of the past may look and act like the one he grew to care for, that person has yet to exist. His princess is more than simply "in another castle," she is in a different story entirely. Rather than deal with the irony and loneliness this evokes, the movie coddles us by suggesting that Tamina and Dastan will still inexplicably live happily ever after.

The Sands of Time is more than a nice pun and a nifty game mechanic, it is also a metaphor about the nature of storytelling. Once an event has transpired, history soon works to obscure it, which requires storytellers to step in to craft meaningful narratives. Time wipes away the memory of what the Prince and player accomplish as easily as one deletes a saved game from a memory card, but that does not make the experience any less true. The game challenges us to participate in storytelling while also driving home the point that narratives are inherently malleable and ethereal.

Film lacks the potential for such participation and variation, therefore it must this simply lead us through plot points. While it is unfair to fault it for this innate limitation, it is disappointing that the Prince of Persia film feels the need to reassure us that the story we are hearing is the "true" version, that it ends unambiguously, and that everyone will be happy in the end.

Prince of Persia teaches us, "Time is an ocean in a storm." Such an ocean can be crossed by many routes and such a storm can be weathered in different ways. The game allows us to act as navigators of our own vessels while the film can only make us passengers on a cruise ship.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

EXP Podcast #81: Morality Dilemma

In an effort to explore the depths of choice and human ethics, morality systems have become commonly used tool in game design. Morality can be a deeply complicated and heated topic of discussion, so how do games successfully tackle this subject with players? Recently J. Matthew Zoss asked this question of some influential game designers in his piece on Gamasutra. Fittingly, GameSetWatch's (and Gamasutra's) Andrew Vanden Bossche joins us this week as a guest host to delve into the "rights and wrongs" of morality in games. As usual, you can find the inspirational article in the show notes, as well as links to more of Andrews work. We encourage you to check it out and leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:

- Are moral dilemmas weakened when tied to in-game rewards/punishments?
- Does isolating moral decision making, and announcing it as such, devalue the decision?
- Morality systems seem very popular. Is this a passing fad or is it here to stay?

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: 40 min 48 sec
- "Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Games," by J. Matthew Zoss via Gamasutra
- Design Diversions, biweekly column by Andrew Vanden Bossche via GameSetWatch
- Mammon Machine
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 7, 2010

There and Back Again

Last November, after a brief tryst with Riot Game's League of Legends, I wrote an article about player behavior as it relates to the game's design. When teams lose, players often engage in an illogical blame game. Afterward, I put away LoL permanently - or so I thought. Recently, I have been getting back into the game, doubling the number of matches I had played in just a couple months. Of all the games at my fingertips, and some new single-player experiences waiting to be played, what brought me back? What gives this game a siren call?

Team Sports

All the games I consistently return to are team-based. The best of these provide enough emergent moments to create memorable scenarios I can share with friends - something akin to a tabletop RPG scenario. While I do occasionally play Modern Warfare 2 again, it does not emphasize team cooperation enough. In fact, most games seem to be won by a couple amazingly skilled individuals acting like Rambo.
Like Left 4 Dead 2, one of my gaming staples, League of Legends demands excellent cohesion and cooperation to succeed. Interestingly, how players interact with their teammates changes over time. A typical five versus five match consists of two teams of two pushing a top and bottom lane, with another covering their own. Early gameplay consists of two champions adjusting their play styles to match each other's strategies and unique abilities. Midway through the game, pairings start to shift with small skirmishes occurring sporadically around the map - this requires a great deal of on-the-fly teamwork. Finally, the last stage generally consists of large team battle, which require each player to understand party roles and how best to engage in combat as a team. Few games can evoke such a strong sense of team pride than a well won round of LoL.

New Value

Something LoL has over many competitors? It is completely free to play. Of course the games I already own are, in a sense, free. But LoL is designed and distributed in such a way as to consistently add value free of charge. Since the game's release last October, Riot Games has released eleven new champions - almost two per month. Malzahar was released a little over a week ago and already Olaf, The Berserker has been announced. Each new playable characters creates the prospect of game changing combinations between champions, creating a consistently dynamic battlefield.

Although new players cannot access the entire game immediately, Riot implements a rotating champion roster of free-to-play characters. Each week, a medley of ten champions are available to everyone. Overtime, players can experiment with all the characters LoL has to offer. Meanwhile, players earn "Influence Points" to purchase the avatars they've enjoyed using the most. I find myself eager to return to LoL to see what new experiences they concoct on a weekly basis.

Level With me

League of Legends rewards repeat visits with a multifaceted leveling system. As discussed above, players can increase the size of their personal character roster over time - allowing them to "level up" in a way. There is also a persistent "Summoner" profile for each player with a rune and mastery system. Masteries are the more traditional leveling element, similar to World of Warcraft's Talent Points. They allow players to specialize themselves by spending points in three skills trees: Offense, Defense, and Utility. Players also have two separate pages in which they can slot runes to further specialize and enhance their play style. Runes can be purchased with Influence Points, once again rewarding continued play with gradual and measurable progression.
Oddly enough, I am generally opposed to leveling systems. They tend to arbitrarily extend game length and encourage grinding as a favorable way to earn experience - essentially converting play to work. However, in LoL, the persistent profile has no limiting effect. While the rune and mastery system are certainly influential, Riot's matchmaking system is such that teams encounter their Summoner equals. Meaning all games start on a relatively level playing field, with all character abilities accessible during the match. The leveling system, while artificial, still only rewards the player, offering a new depth of specialization on top of the same basic gameplay.

Player behavior has not changed all that much since my first impressions of the game. Although I try to do my part, wishing players a friendly good luck before the match. Regardless, LoL has a continual appeal. I can jump into a game quickly, play a relatively short match, and know it is designed to encourage dedicated team-play and disincentivize "rage quits." I have gotten enough enjoyable time from LoL that I even purchased myself a character skin. I know, it sounds lame, but I had no qualms about the purchase. Those sea nymphs at Riot games deserve plenty for their success.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Being Kratos

This post contains spoilers for God of War I, II, and III.

Defending God of War's artistic merit is tricky. The story is rife with plot holes, continuity problems, and cheesy dialogue. Much of the violence and character interactions can be viewed as juvenile and gratuitous, if not obscene and misogynistic. As a character, Kratos appears to operate on a narrow emotional spectrum that spans from "angry" to "super angry."

Despite all this, Kratos is actually an extremely well-realized character and his story is an example of outstanding single-player narrative design. The themes (regardless of their maturity or complexity) explored in God of War's story and those conveyed through its gameplay complement each other. When playing a God of War game, the player is both digesting and actively constructing the game's narrative through their actions.

Violence is the strongest motif in God of War, and it pervades every situation in which Kratos and the player find themselves. By selling his soul in exchange for becoming an unstoppable warrior, Kratos ushers himself into a world in which things exist only to be destroyed. His hubris leads him to tragically kill his family, which causes him to channel his despair into punishing others rather than changing himself. His world becomes one of brutal utilitarianism: Anything that cannot be used as a weapon or a tool against his enemies is destroyed, and anyone whose death would advance his goal is a target.

The games' rules mirror this singular focus. With few exceptions, if something is on the screen, it is meant either to be destroyed or to be used to destroy something else. Devoid of any stealth, cover, or dialogue mechanics, the games makes every enemy that appears a target to attack. Any humans unfortunate enough to cross the player's path are killed and exploited for extra health, experience, or as gruesome objects that aid in solving environmental puzzles. Collateral damage is, at worst, neutral: at the very least, crushing optional enemies and pieces of the environment does nothing. Usually, it rewards the player's thorough and inventive destructive tendencies through narrative progression and ability enhancement. It is in the player's best interest to adopt Kratos' willingness to devastate the world and its inhabitants. Such behavior both matches and enhances the player's understanding of the Kratos they see in the cutscenes.

Like Kratos, the player interprets the world through combat. The game's dominant mode of expression is using the controller buttons in various combinations to kill beasts and people. Even when the action cools, the player still uses combat skills to interact with world: a door that must be forced open requires the player to mash the circle button in the same way they would when they are trying to ram a knife down a Minotaur's mouth. If a path is obscured by debris, the same deadly attacks used against enemies are used to destroy inanimate objects. Operating a simple switch or opening a treasure chest is done with the same forceful movements and angry vocalizations that happen during battle, which suggests that Kratos and the player are at war everything around them.

The tendency to interpret the world through violence is uncomfortably apparent during the infamous sex mini-games. As the camera pans a away from Kratos and his mate (or mates), button prompts identical to those used when killing enemies begin to appear. The player uses the same gameplay techniques during sex that are used to tearing peoples' heads off, and Kratos' grunts of exertion are largely indistinguishable from those made while slaughtering foes. When the encounter ends, the player is rewarded with experience points that are used to make Kratos even more deadly. Not only are women treated in the same way as the beasts Kratos and the player kill, they yield an identical reward when conquered. Like everything else in the game, their interaction with Kratos and the player is expressed through the language of violence and combat.

The quicktime events found throughout the game represent Kratos' reactionary, brutal nature and train the player to adopt his mindset. God of War is the story of a perpetual soldier who constantly performs deadly actions in order to survive and accomplish his goals. Kratos' predisposition to kill first and ask questions later caused the death of his loved ones and allies, but it is also what keeps him alive and striving towards his revenge. By the end of the game, the player has been trained to identify split-second opportunities for violence and to capitalize on them without having to think. Kratos inhabits a binary world governed by the law "kill or be killed." This rule is conveyed through games' rules: on a large scale, success is defined by killing enemies before they can kill the player. Peppered within the experience are quicktime events that distill the binary nature of success to its most basic form. Success is always measured in absolute terms.

In God of War III, the player and Kratos are tasked with ending the seemingly infinite cycle of destruction that takes place within the gameplay and the plot. Ultimately, Kratos accepts that his battle will only end when he abandons his need to fight. During the last fight against Zeus, the player is forced to come to a similar realization. As the player assumes a first person perspective, they are prompted to mash the circle button to mercilessly pummel Zeus to death. Each successful punch causes blood to spring from his face, and Kratos' (along with the player's) sight is soon completely obscured by a red wall of gore.

The player is free to keep pounding away and can still hear every successful punch land on the Zeus' lifeless corpse. The player can continue punishing their nemesis long after he utters his last pathetic groan, but it soon becomes apparent that if they continue fighting, the game will never end. Both Kratos and the player must accept that their bloodlust leads to an endless chain of violence. Such a chain has been demonstrated throughout the series by the many violent plot points and by the hundreds of massacres committed by the player. Ultimately, the only way to end Kratos' story is by forsaking the mindset that originally created it.

Of course, even Kratos' attempts at peace are violent. In God of War I, the player watches as he attempts to end his suffering by committing suicide. Instead of dying, he is saved and then tempted with the promise of more power and the opportunity to exact revenge. God of War II illustrates the escalating consequences of this temptation, and both Kratos and player are continually teased with the prospect of success. In God of War III, things come full circle and Kratos finally succeeds in ending his own life. However, he needs the player's help to do so. In order to finish the game, the player must not only abandon violence towards their enemy, they must actively turn it towards themselves. Using a button command previously reserved for vanquishing enemies, the player ends the game by causing the event they have spent the entire series trying to prevent: the death of Kratos, their avatar.

While the content and execution of God of War's themes may be morally questionable, the plot and gameplay are uniquely congruent. In a story about killing gods, nothing is sacred, and so it is consistent that the player is prompted to callously exploit and destroy everything they encounter. Chaining together vicious combos and learning to win quicktime events is how the player interacts with everything and everyone in the game. The game defines everything in terms of combat, which serves to reflect Kratos' character: he is a single-minded, reactionary figure whose efforts to rectify violence with more violence only serves to victimize those around him. In the end, Kratos and the player must turn this violence against themselves to end the story.

The moment the sword pierces Kratos the story as told by the plot and the story as told by the player's actions converge. Kratos may not be an overly-complex, noble, or even likable character, but he is understandable because the game requires the player to personify him through action. The player is both constrained and rewarded by the same violence that defines the character, which adds a depth of knowledge unique to performance art. To successfully play God of War is more than simply understanding or believing Kratos as a character; to succeed with Kratos is to be Kratos.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

EXP Podcast #80: Prince of Persia: The Movie: The Podcast

It was a long holiday weekend here in the U.S., but don't think that Jorge and I were taking a break. On the contrary, we engaged in some some field research by trekking to the local movie theater to see the latest video game-to-film adaptation: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. As long time admirers of the franchise, we proceeded hopefully, yet cautiously. Would the Sands of Time live up to the quality of its source material? Would we be left wishing we could rewind time to before our money left our wallets? Would Nolan North dub over Jake Gyllenhaal's voice? Check out the show to find out.

Some discussion starters:

- For those of you who saw the movie, what did you think? For those of you who haven't, what makes you hesitant?

- Do you have any favorite video game films? What games do you think would work well on the silver screen?

- Given that the player's ability to actively interact with a game largely defines the narrative, can a film do justice to a game's themes?

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 33 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks