Monday, August 30, 2010

EXP Update

It’s hard to believe, but the two-year anniversary of Experience Points is just over a week away! Before we go any further, let’s take care of the mushy stuff: Thanks to everyone who visits the site. That so many of you choose to spend your time reading our posts, listening to the podcast, and contributing to the site with your emails and comments is beyond amazing. We are both honored and grateful!

For nearly two years now, we’ve made it a priority to produce substantial, thoughtful material on a regular basis. Committing to Monday, Wednesday and Friday updates provided both a source of stability and the motivation to consistently think critically about games. When we started Experience Points, we were not far from our college years. On top of our naturally nerdy inclinations, we were both fairly serious students and the site gave us an outlet to use mental horsepower that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Now our studious nature is pulling us back into the strange world of academia, and we must adjust our schedules accordingly. Unlike the predictability of 9 to 5 routine, academic deadlines often manifest as droughts and floods. Also, routines are great, but sometimes familiarity and comfort can lead to complacency. With all this in mind, we’d like to introduce a few changes to the site in hopes of keeping things fresh:

1. First the big news: both of us will be writing a column over at PopMatters on the Moving Pixels blog. Long-time visitors will recognize PopMatters as a consistent source of inspiration for Experience Points and we are extremely excited to be joining their talented crew. We will start posting there in a couple of weeks and the style will resemble the kind of material you would find in our traditional Monday and Friday essays. The columns are currently slated to appear on Thursdays. When a column goes up, we will post a link to it on our website along with a mini-essay meant to supplement the piece or address topics we might have had to excise during the editing process. For an idea of what these might look like, check out L.B. Jeffries’ posts.

2. On Tuesdays, we will post material exclusive to Experience Points. These posts will follow a slightly different format than the current Monday/Friday essays. Specifically, we want to experiment with styles that contrast with the long-form essays you’ll find on Thursdays. These new Tuesday posts might be responses to current events, short commentaries on specific games, or think pieces that invite reader participation. Ultimately, these posts will be a more informal counter-weight to the longer Thursday features. These posts are partly inspired by Krystian Majewski of the Game Design Scrapbook and Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer.

3. On Wednesdays, we will post the ever-faithful Experience Points Podcast!

4. Friday through Monday will be reserved for further experimentation and miscellaneous thoughts. As of now, we’re leaving these days as unstructured, which means that some weeks may have multiple posts while some may have none. Since we will still be posting material on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Friday through Monday will be used like a sandbox to test out new ideas, post things that never made their way into other projects, and examine the various odds and ends of video games and culture.

We’ll be transitioning from our Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule to our new Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule over the next few weeks. There shouldn’t be too much downtime, but don’t send out the rescue teams if the site is a bit quieter than usual. As you may have gathered from our writing and podcasts, it’s difficult for us to stay quiet. We’ll be up to speed in no time.

Thanks again for visiting the site! It’s been a great couple of years and we look forward to having you along for many more.

- Jorge and Scott

Friday, August 27, 2010

A League of My Own

I have never been a fan of football (the American version for our friends abroad). To be completely honest, I found most organized sports strange for most of my life. While I learned to play and appreciate soccer, even watching it on television occasionally, football still seemed one of the strangest recreations undeserving of its fame. What are all these men doing in body armor? Why is each side essentially composed of two completely separate offensive and defensive teams? What is with the frequent breaks, time-outs, and lack of stoppage time? Watching and enjoying a game of football seemed a worthless endeavor. Now I am a proud owner of a fantasy football team, excitedly anticipating the season’s first game just two weeks from yesterday.

If we were to broaden our definition of video games to include fantasy sports, its player base would be more than double that of World of Warcraft. Since its birth, fantasy football has spawned other games, such as hockey, cricket, professional wrestling, and even fantasy congress. The basic concept is simple. Each participant in a fantasy football league drafts players or groups of players for each required position. For example, my particular league players with one quarterback, one running back, one running back/wide receiver (either position can fill this slot), two wide receivers, one wide receiver/tight end, one defense, and one kicker for a total of nine slots, with an additional seven benched players. Thus, each player composes a team of sixteen real life players and then compete each week against another player for highest total points.
Those who know and appreciate football will tend to get the most out of a fantasy football game. For many, drafting real players satisfies their desire run a team of their very own, normally reserved for the ludicrously rich. Personally, I found such aspirations unappealing. Instead, I learned to enjoy the sport by making it completely my own.

This is not to say fantasy football is a solitary sport. I play with my brother and several good friends, all of whom pressured me greatly to first lead a team. Playing with others goes a long way for enjoying a game, even games in which you have no interest. Draft day is a highlight, an excuse to hang out with friends, jape their picks, and try to outwit and predict their selections. Ranking my list of players becomes a game in and of itself, even with help from internet professionals. In many ways, fantasy football is like an MMO. It’s a persistent online game, that I play, even before the actual season has started.

In retrospect, I think my initial displeasure with real football stemmed from an incorrect perception about how the game is played. This is different than the set of rules followed in football, many of which I still do not understand. I have no expertise about pass-plays and run-plays, or how to decide which to choose. Simply put, I had always thought football was an action game, when really it is a turn-based strategy game. Each play is a single turn, and each option the quarter back has is a potential maneuver. Whether a throw succeeds or fails depends on which strategy was used in one instance, how expertly it was performed, and how it matches up with the same condition from the opposing team.

With this in mind, fantasy football is actually a dual-layered strategy game. Building a team with real players is akin to picking a starting set of flowers in Plants vs. Zombies, for example. Deciding which players to put in during a given weak is like choosing which troops to build in Starcraft. I admit, these are weak metaphors. Regardless, they capture some of the forethought that goes into preparing to play while not actually playing - the entirety of fantasy football. By the time the Steelers play the Falcons, my fate is sealed. I merely watch how well my gambles pay off.
Which is not to sell the game short. The mechanics of fantasy football, that is the ability for players to use waivers, research players and teams, and plan accordingly, is very deep. Starting Jay Cutler, the Chicago quarter back, may seem like a bad idea considering his score average last season. However, considering he is playing against a weak Detroit defense, has a strengthened defensive line, and is newly coached by Mike Martz (the very capable offensive coordinator), such a strategic decision might actually prove worthwhile.

I am still not a huge fan of sports culture. I do not root for any particular team, nor do I wear a jersey with my Ochocinco scrawled on the back. I do, however, pay attention to football with the fervent attention of a competitive gamer. I play this game many times each week, and every round has its own risks and rewards. My understanding is colored almost exclusively by my gaming habits. I play a class-based strategy game with armored warriors, long-distance spell casters, and legendary heroes. Although many people love football, the game is mine alone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

EXP Podcast #92: Digital del Toro

What happens when a renowned filmmaker gets involved with video games? It doesn’t happen often and the results are usually less than spectacular, but THQ and Guillermo del Toro are looking to buck this trend. This week, we use this development as a starting point to discuss the what happens when established directors try their hand at game making. We cover everything from artistic philosophies to the possibility of “dream team” partnerships between famous designers and directors. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on whether titans of the box office can also conquer the Xbox.

Some discussion starters:

- What are your thoughts on Guillermo del Toro potentially making a game?

- What kinds of skills could directors bring to games? How important is it for them to have a lot of experience with the medium, either as a player or a creator?

- Have you played any games in which a film director was involved? Which directors do you think would make enjoyable games?

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: 26 min 45 sec
- “Guillermo del Toro negotiating video game deal with THQ,” by Ben Fritz, via the Los Angeles Times
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Trials of Marston and Mario

Based on their respective sales numbers, I’m probably not the only person playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Red Dead Redemption concurrently. Besides their financial success and critical acclaim, the two games have little in common. Comparing the way they approach challenge and difficulty presents a particularly striking juxtaposition. Whereas SMG 2 carries on the tradition of clearly defined, skill based challenges, RDR exemplifies the modern trend towards rewarding persistence and developing plot experiences rather than mastery over the game’s systems.

Although SMG 2 has some flexibility in terms of difficulty, the game still requires the player to demonstrate a high degree of skill in order to progress. SMG 2 reveals the location of the stars and usually provides a clear path through the level, so getting lost is rarely a problem. Instead, it challenges the player by forcing them to perform under pressure. While star placement may be obvious, staying calm enough to perform a backflip on a sinking platform while under enemy fire makes the game difficult.

Because the game has strict requirements about the number of stars needed to progress, players are forced to hone their skills if they want to see the entire game. Players must prove themselves to be competent in one world before they are able to move to the next. While the plot of Mario is decidedly thin, this gameplay narrative of overcoming increasingly difficult challenges complement’s the game’s overall ethos. Just as Mario must make his way through increasingly devious traps as he ventures into the depths of enemy territory, so too must the player learn to succeed in the face of increasingly complex challenges. Mario and the player are never at a loss for what to do: they have to make some terrifying jumps to save the princess. The challenge comes from proving that they can do it.

Red Dead Redemption has a very different narrative. The game’s plot and systems tell stories about navigating a harsh, bleak world in order to carry out a task that comes naturally to the player and the main character. John Marston is hired to take down his old gang because of his abilities: the government knows he’s a killer, his old gang-mates know he’s a killer, and Marston himself knows he’s a killer. Similarly, within minutes of learning the controls and the quest structure, the player is familiar with the skills that will eventually lead to the game’s end.

Much of RDR’s action revolves around traversing the vast landscape looking for missions. While not immediately challenging in the way that making a series of precision jumps is, having the grit to cover hundreds of virtual miles over the course of dozens of hours is difficult. Whereas SMG 2 shows the player the goal and challenges them to reach it, RDR challenges the player to have faith that goal itself exists.

Once found, RDR’s missions all employ similar dynamics. The cover-based shooting that makes up most of the action requires persistence and patience rather than expert tactics: enemy stupidity, generous aim assistance, and readily-available bullet time make victory a question of “when” rather than “if.” Personally, I found the later missions to be easier than the early missions: the battle dynamics of popping in and out of cover remained constant, but my weapons became stronger. Soon, I was dispatching enemies with a single shot, which led me to focus on the game’s interest in existential difficulty.

The final levels of SMG 2 force the player to prove that they can implement their knowledge of the game’s complex move set. By the end, Mario and the player must implement all their skills to conquer tightly scripted, deviously constructed obstacle courses. In the case of RDR, late-game bounties, gun fights, horse races and duels are largely identical to the first ones. RDR is an endurance run: the competency of Marston and the player are not seriously questioned, but their dedication to finishing the job is.

Just as the story is not interested in deeply examining Marston’s practical skills, RDR only lightly tests the player’s grasp of the game’s mechanics. Instead of forcing them to master sharpshooting or trick horseback riding, RDR challenges the player by having them slog through the lonely, bleak, often repetitive world. The reward for doing so comes in the form of the emergent stories that arise from random bear attacks and freak dynamite accidents. Getting to know and understand Marston’s motivations as a character is also part of the reward for sticking with him. It’s a long road until the end of the game, but the conclusion offers an intense, poetic finale that respects the game’s themes of both justice and nihilism.

Mario’s story in SMG 2 stands in stark contrast: vanquishing Bowser and saving Princess Peach is a familiar story with a predictable outcome, but Mario and the player are constantly challenged to prove they have the skills to complete the task. The goals are always clear, but the means to achieve them are reliant on the player’s command of the concrete skills needed to navigate the world.

Taken together, the two games describe the seemingly paradoxical difficulties we often face in life: Red Dead Redemption challenges us to find meaning in a world marked with vast stretches of uncertainty, a world in which we are confident in our abilities but worried about where to apply them and to what ends. Super Mario Galaxy 2 reminds us that, while the world may be large and uncertain, we must still face the prospect of proving ourselves able to overcome both current and future challenges.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Galaxy of Challenges

Mario is no stranger to precarious situations, but trying find stable footing on a platform as wily as the Wii is no easy task. In many ways, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a very traditional game: it challenges the player to master a set of skills that cannot be modified or upgraded. Failure is just one poor jump away and the number of mid-level checkpoints are limited. Instead of quicktime events and cutscenes, boss fights and elaborate set pieces are navigated with the same controls used in a normal situation. The game is not easy.

Because of this, SMG 2 and the Wii initially seem to be strange bedfellows. While the Wii is home to many traditional gaming experiences (and some extremely hard games, like the Bit.Trip series), it is best known for its broad, casual user base. After all, this is the system that your parents, or perhaps even your grandparents, own.

SMG 2 is structured to accommodate a range of players with different skill levels by creating a single world whose rules organically lead to various difficulty settings. Rather than having a menu option with which to toggle between contrived “easy, medium, and hard” difficulties, SMG 2’s challenges are integrated into the game’s structure. It is an elegant system that allows players to scale the difficulty based on their skills and how far they want to push themselves.

Mario’s complete move set is available from the outset, which allows experienced players to employ their prior knowledge without having to wade through tedious tutorials. For those who have never performed a long jump or a backflip, optional signs and video demonstrations introduce the moves as they become necessary. Additionally, the levels are designed such that they demand increasing complexity as the game progresses. Players that already know how to control Mario can easily breeze through early levels by skipping tutorials and using moves that exploit the simplicity of early levels. New players have the option of experimenting on their own or following a suggested path that forces them to gradually improve their skills as they progress.

The levels are demanding, but many include strategically placed 1ups that the player will naturally tend to collect. For example, in the “Boo Moon” galaxy, there is a relatively easy collection of three 1ups along the main path of the level. This softens the punishment of having to repeat the level multiple times, as losing one life and then collecting three more allows players to improve their technique while still coming out of the experience with a net gain of 1ups. Players that can do this on the first try get to skip this informal tutorial while also being rewarded with three extra lives. Additionally, the hub world always has a cache of free 1ups as well as the opportunity to purchase more 1ups with star bits collected in the levels. This dynamic incentivises star bit and coin collection as activities that both hone the player’s reflexes and allow them to acquire the currency that can buy them more chances to improve. SMG 2 makes the player prove their abilities while simultaneously offering the tools to keep trying.

Because players are not required to collect every star in order to finish the game, SMG 2 accommodates both “tourists” and “skill players.” People that simply want to sample the game’s wide range of environments can do so without putting themselves through the rigorous task of collecting every item. At the same time, folks looking to test themselves are free to make the game harder by going after every single star and comet medal.

Collecting comet medals and looking for secret stars are simultaneously objectives and training exercises. Comet medals are placed in hard-to-reach areas of normal levels, and choosing to collect them often drives the player away from the easy path through the level. By completing a series of harrowing jumps to get the medal, the game trains the player for the subsequent challenge that is then unlocked. Prankster comet levels build on certain skills that a player had previously employed in order to get to that point. Challenges such as finishing a combat-focused course without being hit or a collection-focused course under a certain time limit are unlocked after the player has shown they have mastered the basics and are ready to further refine the skills that got them there in the first place. These shifts in difficulty are both natural and optional: they only appear after the player has proven their skill, and the player is free to accept or decline the challenges.

SMG 2’s cooperative mode is also a versatile method for adjusting the game’s difficulty. The second player’s ability to collect items and attack enemies can be used as both a training tool for the second player and a helping hand for the first player. As the second player, a novice can collect items and target enemies, skills that both allow them to act in a support role and practice techniques that may improve their skill in the lead role. A tourist can tag along and see all the levels while still being involved in the game. A veteran can aid someone that might need a boost when trying to reach that final star. Like the prankster comet challenges and comet medals, all of these situations occur within the same game space and are governed by the same mechanics. Instead of implementing arbitrary handicaps or contrived challenges, the difficulty shifts based on how players choose to engage with consistent, yet flexible, rule systems.

I’m at a point now where SMG 2 seems to be mocking me with its challenges. However, I don’t mind having to retry a purple coin challenge an embarrassing amount of times because I know that the difficulty is derived from a system that responds to my appetite for challenge. The Super Mario Galaxy 2 experience can be casual, intense, solitary, or social without having to fiddle with options, upgrade equipment, or grind for experience points. By using a difficulty scheme that facilitates and responds to skill development, Super Mario Galaxy 2 avoids the problem of making the player blindly choose an arbitrary difficulty level and instead gives them a system that changes according to their goals. In doing so, the game is perfectly at home on a console made for players of all types.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

EXP Podcast #91: How to Build a World

We say it so often, it’s almost a cliche: video games allow us to explore virtual “worlds.” The medium is replete with strange locations that players learn to navigate as naturally as they do their own neighborhoods. Whether it is the Mushroom Kingdom, Rapture, or Liberty City, a convincing world can yield an immersive experience. But what exactly makes for a good game world, and how do we describe these qualities concretely? In his recent Edge article, Chris Dahlen raises these question and begins to push for a more explicit articulation of how game worlds function. We use his article as a starting point and cover issues of fiction, systemic storytelling, and themes that define gaming worlds. Seeing as how we have such worldly listeners, we’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What are your favorite video game worlds and why did they impress you? Conversely, what prevents you from being drawn into a game world?

- How much of a game’s world is defined by its rules and systems? For example, would a Mario game that isn’t based in the Mushroom Kingdom or rendered with a fantastic art style still be in the “Mario world?” Would an artistically traditional Mario game without platforming still be part of the “Mario world?”

- What role does imagination play in world building? How is the willingness to believe in a place augmented by previous experiences, as in the case of sequels?

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 04 sec
- “You Build Worlds,” by Chris Dahlen via Edge
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 16, 2010

Player Autonomy and Games, part 2

This article is part two of a two part series on autonomy and choice in games. You can find Part 1 here. I owe a great deal to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity for inspiring and shaping the majority of these posts.

Last week I discussed choice in games from a philosophical liberal perspective. In agreement with John Stuart Mill’s assessment of the value of individuality and life plans, I posited that choice in games is valuable because choice is important in fashioning happy lives for ourselves. But just as in real life, not all choices matter equally. Those derived from plans are best, even when outcomes seem sub-par or align with the decisions of others. Yet even the most ideal and self-reflective choice is influenced by numerous factors. Once again, this troubles our understanding of choice in real life and in games. What does it mean when a player’s autonomy is called into question?

Many of our valuable identities are formed while we are confined to a preexisting set of options. As Appiah points out, for a self-constructed identity to make sense and be valuable to the creator, “it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one’s own choices.” While a woman may find value in joining a women’s social group based upon her personal identity, she could also suggest her external reality as a woman constrains her autonomy in that she cannot feasibly pursue a dream career as a linebacker for the Falcons (at least not in today’s society). In game design terms, how do I differentiate and evaluate an authored constraint (NFL regulations) and a condition for a meaningful autonomous choice (joining a social group)?
Before I move on, let’s take an example from Appiah: Imagine Michael, a store owner, who is robbed at gunpoint and forced to open the store vault for his assailant.

Michael formed the intention to open the vault after considering all the options; although he wouldn’t have made his decision without coercion, he could have done otherwise. Did he form his intention autonomously? Reasonable people may differ.

Now imagine this incident was a prank gone bad. The robber was actually his close friend, and the gun was a toy water pistol. If Michael had been better informed, he would have chosen his actions differently. In a video game, almost all information is authored and controlled. How much information do players need to make meaningful autonomous decisions? Conversation choices in Dragon Age: Origins, for example, may lead to romantic relationships with NPCs. Can a person who wants to sleep with Leliana but makes the wrong dialogue choice, thereby locking themselves out of that option, be considered to have autonomy? Do they have less autonomy than someone with intricate knowledge of the immutable dialogue tree? What of someone who makes their dialogue choices unaware that romantic relationships can occur at all? In this case, information (or the lack thereof) can be both a constraint on, and a condition for, meaningful choice.
Now let’s imagine Michael had access to both his own pistol and a nearby silent alarm. With more options, Michael may have chosen differently. Does Michael have more autonomy in this case? Similarly, could we say the streamlined Mass Effect 2 gives less autonomy to its players than the first Mass Effect? Can we be said to have more autonomy, and therefore more access to meaningful choice, in a game with more weapons than another? What about increased dialogue options? When Mass Effect 2 offers a moral dilemma during a heavily authored loyalty quest, with only two options, can we say the player has only partial autonomy? “Does the rich bachelor idler have more autonomy than the family man with a full time job,” Appiah asks. “Such are the imponderables posed by talk of options.”
To answer any of the above questions with a resolute yes is to say we can have partial autonomy, an idea Appiah rejects. “The notion of partial autonomy suggests the conceptual possibility of ‘full’ autonomy: if we have difficulty making sense of the latter, we should find the former equally elusive.” He continues:

Talk of partial autonomy is an ill-fated attempt to split the difference between two standpoints: one in which I have autonomy and one in which I do not...oblivious of the distinct purposes served by each of the two standpoints.

To bring Michael back into the equation, “if we’re interested in the conditions that make people act a certain way,” Appiah says, “we tell one narrative: here’s how Michael acts under these conditions. If we’re interested in retribution and blame, we tell another: look at what that villain did to poor Michael!” In video game terms, players are always potentially autonomous, regardless of linearity, depending on what sensations game designers seek to evoke. Therefore, it is nonsensical to say one implementation of choice and autonomy in a game is better or more “immersive” than another. “When is something a condition of choosing and when is it a constraint upon choice? Inevitably, how we answer is a matter of interest-guided judgement, of what standpoint we adopt.”
How would a game undoubtedly rich in choice fit into this paradigm? Perhaps Jason Rhorer’s Sleep Is Death could be considered the closest a game has come to an unobstructed player experience. Some consider the game to be the pinnacle of cooperative storytelling. Yet this is troubling. Since Rhorer created the game’s assets, is he considered an additional storyteller within his sandbox world? What about the constraints and knowledge barriers on the player designing the environment for the other? How much cooperation must take place in order to call it cooperative? Using such vocabulary is to take one of Appiah’s “standpoints” and reveal your interests, not to prove any objective claim about storytelling. Sleep Is Death is but one way to evoke a suite of sensations, itself full of conditions and constraints.

What about a highly authored 2D side-scrolling experience like Canabalt? Players have only two choices: to jump or not to jump. Does this mean the game is less engrossing or less meaningful than a choice rich experience? Of course not. The game executes its two options in service to an expertly crafted sensation. Players can even identify with protagonists in linear narratives like this one (although Canabalt may be a poor example), so as long they have a well developed rationale. In that sense, meaningful autonomy is much like Kant’s take on free will: “We have to act as if freedom is possible even though we can’t provide any theoretical justification for it,” Appiah notes, “it can’t be explained, only defended.”
Can we say choices in games narrative matter more than choice in gameplay? Is autonomy more important in one or the other? Again, the answer depends on what questions you seek to answer and what sensations you seek to evoke. To say a player lacks narrative autonomy from the game designer is to make a statement about your explicit or implicit goals and values. A game which provides no narrative autonomy fulfills a different purpose than a decision rich experience.

Accordingly, choices can be incredibly powerful, but they need not be. Morality systems (with a few exceptions), for example, undermine meaningful choice by offering player autonomy of actions but not over belief systems. What would it mean to offer a choice of various communion wafers to an atheist? More options do not equate to autonomy, and therefore meaning and immersion either. No game designer should feel burdened by popular trends one way or the other. Above all else, respect players as autonomous beings, each who value exercising their given faculties to accomplish plans and enjoy the sensations of gaming, regardless of designer constraints.

Friday, August 13, 2010

BioShock and the Infinite Franchise

This week, Jorge and I talked about the importance of character names. In a convenient coincidence, yesterday’s announcement of BioShock Infinite expands on this conversation about names by demonstrating the power of a game’s title. Simply put: Bioshock Infinite is a disappointing name, one that makes me worry about the game itself, the future of the series, and the medium as a whole.

This is a drastic statement, and I acknowledge that I am undertaking a dubious endeavor: criticizing a game that has not yet been released is a great way to look foolish. I only know what the previews reveal, so perhaps my fears will ultimately be unfounded. I sincerely hope this is the case. For now, BioShock Infinite represents video game culture’s tiresome devotion to the “franchise” at the expense of logic or artistic elegance.

What is a “BioShock?”

I’ve never liked the title “BioShock” because it always seemed to be an oversimplification of the game’s ambitions. An apparent nod to its spiritual (yet narratively unrelated) predecessors, System Shock and System Shock 2, BioShock carries the connotations of those sci-fi/cyber punk themes even though they do little to serve its fiction. BioShock’s treatment of biology and genetics is about as sophisticated as X-Men’s explanation of mutant powers. Push slightly on the concepts behind ADAM, EVE, or the plausibility of an undersea city, and you risk toppling the entire story. Whereas “Shock” was once a pleasing piece of alliteration that conjured up images of computer networks and hacking, its appearance in BioShock is a non sequitur. Either it is a holdover from old, largely unrelated games or it is a painfully literal allusion to the many “shocking” twists in the story. Either way, “BioShock” does little to represent the game’s strengths.

BioShock tells a millenarian story of the Objectivist rapture gone awry: instead of ascending to heaven, the most promising members of society followed their modern messiah, Andrew Ryan, to the depths of the ocean. What was supposed to be a utopia was instead rendered a hell by their avarice and indifference to anyone’s wishes but their own. It is a game about the End of Days played out in a confined area. The player acts as a divine, shotgun-wielding judge who metes out punishment for the wicked and salvation for the innocent. The city itself is a character and a metaphor for the events of the game. Experiencing it is at once glorious and terrifying. How better to describe it, and what better to name it, than “Rapture?”

If the previews are to be believed and if history is any indication, BioShock Infinite will be a game about large, complex, and serious ideas. Why not give it a name befitting of its tone?

Like Rapture before it, it looks like the floating city of Columbia will serve as both a character and metaphor for the game’s message. Columbia is a powerful symbol that represents both the optimistic ideals and historical sins of America. It embodies the triumphal spirit of Euro-American colonialism as well as the violence and destruction inherent in that ethos. In a game about patriotism, racism, and industrialism, what could be a more fitting name than “Columbia?”

Actually, I would suggest “New Columbia.” Naming both the city and the game “New Columbia” would evoke the faith in technology, democracy, and nationalism that defined the Progressive Era. At the same time, it implies an understanding that the ideal of Columbia is marred by the devastation it has left in its wake throughout history. “New Columbia” would then be a hubristic attempt to avoid those mistakes, an attempt whose ramifications would be experienced by the player.

The Franchise Problem

Instead, we have BioShock Infinite, a title that sounds more like a Michael Bay movie than a contemplative work about the dark side of Utopianism. Unfortunately, we are probably stuck with BioShock for the foreseeable future. The reason is made clear in this interview with Ken Levine:

In amongst many other interesting comments are numerous references to the BioShock “franchise.” The critical and commercial success of BioShock has doomed its successors to names that bolster the BioShock intellectual-property. As silly as the name might be, it is now a recognized brand and can thus be utilized as a sales tactic.

Thus, BioShock joins in a long tradition of games whose titles reflect their marketing rather than their message. John Madden has retired, he is barely featured in the games anymore, and EA has a monopoly on officially licensed NFL games, yet we still have “Madden NFL” every year. Gus Mastrapa asked whether we would have had a Final Fantasy XII if every prior game had been named something different. Personally, I doubt it as the series has a habit of coasting on fond memories. It’s hard to tell if Red Dead Redemption has anything meaningful to say about the concept of redemption (Jorge and I think it might), but what is certain is that its name is meant to leverage the notoriety of its predecessor, Red Dead Revolver, despite their unrelated stories. As if the word “Batman” wasn’t enough to get people excited, the critically acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum has spawned Batman: Arkham City. I’m sure the marketing department rests easier when a sequel’s title takes two thirds of its words from the original game.

I have no doubt that BioShock Infinite will be an impressive game. Levine and Irrational are highly skilled artists, and their willingness to incorporate thought provoking concepts in a genre best known for bullets and gore is admirable. It is exactly this that makes me disappointed that BioShock has turned into a franchise. What started off as an unfortunately-named masterpiece that told a carefully crafted, self-contained story now seems to be turning into a series of tangentially related games held together by a marketing phrase.

With BioShock Infinite, Levine and Irrational had a chance to break away from old conventions and create a work that alludes to the past without directly referencing it. Levine goes to great lengths to explain how different BioShock Infinite will be compared to the other two BioShock games. He stresses that there “are no sacred cows” in the franchise, but in doing so, he seems to ignore the most sacred cow of all: the name “BioShock.”

The trailer shows a first-person game set in an ominous utopia. There is a mechano-man, a damsel in distress, telekinetic powers, political commentary, and philosophical undertones. How meaningful is it to get rid of a sacred and then replace it with a similar one with the same name?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

EXP Podcast #90: What's In A Name?

My name is Jorge, and sometimes Shen, and other times Arkania. I have also been a variety of strangely named characters in everything from JRPGs to First-Person Shooters. According to Andrew Lynes, whose piece inspired this week's podcast, character name changes may subtly affect our gaming experiences. Join Scott and I while we discuss Link, Pseudonyms, Uno etiquette, and ways to improve the name game. For Andrew's article, check out the show notes. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion Starters

- Do you have any favorite names you use in games? Do they make your games more meaningful?
- What character names have you changed in the past and why?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 4 sec
- "How Character Names Change the Narrative Experience," by Andrew Lynes via Bitmob
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 9, 2010

Player Autonomy and Games, part 1

This article is part one of a two part series on autonomy and choice in games. You can find Part 2 here. I owe a great deal to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity for inspiring and shaping the majority of these posts.

In an excellent and recent article entitled On the old vs. the new, game designer Steve Gaynor discusses two interesting “paradigms of immersion,” one bringing the player into the fictional gaming world and the other bringing fictional elements into the player's real world. He has this to say about immersion:

I think it's fair to question the motives behind striving for "immersion," sensory or otherwise. "To be immersed" shouldn't be an end unto itself; it's a means to achieving some specific mix of sensation, but what?

By exploring concepts of autonomy, I want to take this same approach to player choice - a design tool widely accepted as immersive. While many of us discuss what makes in-game choices “good” or “bad,” we rarely discuss why player autonomy is valuable in the first place - or is it?

Tale of Tales game designer Michaël Samyn challenges the notion player choice is always important when he states: “For us, interactivity is not about ‘making interesting choices’ or ‘overcoming meaningful challenges’. It’s about make-belief.” He asserts that, for Tale of Tales, gaming is about role-playing, which emphasizes empathy and role-playing towards an independent cast of characters over decision making.Others would disagree with Michaël’s approach. Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins is a testament to the power of choice in a decidedly role-playing experience. Perhaps Bioware’s approach really is the most valuable in creating an immersive experience. Maybe decision making players will more easily embody the protagonist who is also faced with difficult choices.

Choice is, undoubtedly, important in fashioning a happy existence for ourselves. John Stuart Mill, philosopher and undeniable progenitor of modern day Liberalism, was a strong proponent for the value of autonomy or “individuality.” In On Liberty, Mill has this to say about individuality:

Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? Or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?

As Kwame Anthony Appiah elucidates in his book The Ethics of Identity, Mill stood by self-authorship and freedom “not just because it enabled other things - such as the discovery of truth - but also because without it people could not develop the individuality that is an essential element of human good.”
In terms of video games, it can be said players might value freedom in games because they value self-authorship in real life. We can feel closer to our protagonists, more immersed in their experience, when we have the autonomy to direct their goals. In a way, choice may allow players to humanize their protagonists. What more can be said of a design choice than it brings players nearer to feeling the most comfortably “human” (in the non-species specific sense of the word) in a digital realm.

However, choice is not so simple. As part of individuality, Mill also emphasized the importance of “life plans,” or pursuit of a personalized good among a variety of options. Yet, not all desires amongst options are equal. As Appiah notes, Mill says “a desire that flows from a value that itself derives from a life plan is more important than a desire (such as an appetite) that I just happen to have; for it flows from my reflective choices, my commitments, not just from passing fancy.”
Accordingly, types of choices in games matter depending on how they fit into a plan. In Bioshock, for example, a player has a choice over which plasmids and weapons to upgrade, and may make this decision according to a plan. This choice is more valuable, from a straight-forward Millsian perspective, than the choice about whether or not to stray from the path and pick up extra ammunition. In a sense, the former allows players to create and formulate miniature and more trivial versions of Mill’s life plans: game plans.

Constructing games with “game plans” in mind need not constrain developers to adhere to mechanical or narrative linearity. There are, of course, other “important human goods, like love or friendship, that we don’t exactly ‘plan’ for.” Life plans, as Appiah points out, can shift, grow, and change dramatically. Game plans may also change over the course of a game. Providing a rational, however, is crucially important - which we will come to next week.

Mill does concede that the product choice may not be ideal. For one, choice does not necessitate diverse outcomes. Exercising one’s faculties in pursuit of a life plan, or a game plan in this case, is still valuable. Diversity in outcome, as Mill saw it, is not inherently valuable, “for I might choose a plan that was, as it happened, very like other people’s.” Secondly, my choices might not actually be the best. Again, Appiah reflects: “All of us could, no doubt, have made better lives than we have: but that, Mill says, is no reason for others to attempt to force those better lives upon us.”
In Mill’s opinion, individual choice is valuable even when the outcomes are not perfect. We may be able to say the same thing in games. Designers should keep potential outcomes in mind and actually be ok with what they perceive to be suboptimal decisions from their players. Game developers could also offer players a negative option mechanically speaking while still satisfying their audience. Bioshock 2 does this, to some extent, with the process of harvesting ADAM with Little Sisters. Similarly, games are not necessarily flawed if the majority of players make the same decision. Provided players constraints have some rationale, game designers could get away with more unequal outcomes so long as player autonomy is maintained.

But at what point do barriers or constraints on the player become too much? When does player choice not actually reflect player autonomy? The issue of autonomy is still debated amongst philosophers, so there are no easy answers. In fact, by unpackaging autonomy, choice in games might actually prove meaningless. But that is a subject we will tackle next week.

Friday, August 6, 2010

DeathSpank's Straight Man

Now that my PSN problems have subsided, I’ve been chuckling my way through DeathSpank. Whether or not one appreciates the humor (ironic comments about quest logs and unicorn poop jokes aren’t for everyone), it is still rare to see a game concentrate so heavily on comedy. Such a focus places the player in a strange position: the interactive nature of the medium means that the player assumes a dual role as a performer and audience member.

Because DeathSpank functions like a traditional hack and slash RPG on a mechanical level, the player assumes the role of the “straight man” in a comedy duo. It’s our job to play the game like we know a hack and slash RPG ought to be played: We dutifully equip armor, grind for abilities, and complete quests. In response, the game subverts these traditions by lampooning them or presenting us with outlandish tasks. Without the player filling the role as the earnest adventurer, there would be no comedic foil for the game’s jokes. In terms of game dynamics, DeathSpank is little more than a purple-thong-wearing Link. The player acts in a way that is considered “normal” in the context of the genre, while the world and its wacky inhabitants cause humorous mayhem through silliness and satire. In DeathSpank players channel Dean Martin while the story, surroundings, and NPCs act like Jerry Lewis:

The difficulty with using this comedy dynamic in a game is that the humor is both produced and consumed by the player. While it is clear that Martin and Lewis often had a good time joking around and ad-libbing, their routines were for the benefit of an audience. In DeathSpank, the player is tasked with tickling themselves by constructing jokes that are ultimately for their own amusement. Thus, some of the humor that would normally be derived from spontaneity is lost on the audience. Rather than simply anticipating jokes, the player enacts them, which makes any laughs the game can provide even more impressive.

DeathSpank routinely tests the player’s ability to split themselves between being an actor and an audience member. Much of the humor comes at the expense of the character DeathSpank, and by extension, the player. As is the case in many comedies, big laughs often stem from the foolishness or misfortune of others. For example, part of the joke of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first routine?” is that they are playing characters who grow increasingly annoyed with one another as the sketch progresses. Not only are we laughing at the linguistic silliness, we also are laughing at these the predicament in which these two jokers find themselves.

Because the player is both the creator and consumer of the game’s comedy, DeathSpank often forces me to execute jokes in which I am the object of ridicule. When DeathSpank tries to rescue the orphan, the humor is working on several levels, most of which are having fun at my expense.

In a normal game, rescuing a person from demons would result in their gratitude. Instead, the orphan turns out to be a spoiled brat who commands DeathSpank perform a series of quests before she joins him. Rather than providing closure, the end of each quest gives rise to a new one. The orphan demands a lollipop before joining DeathSpank. After the lollipop is secured, she demands a pony. Once the pony is secured, she demands DeathSpank act as a surrogate father and take her through a montage of wholesome father-daughter fun. Every time I try to talk her into leaving via dialogue options, I am rewarded by another stupid fetch quest. If I were watching some rube play through this sequence, I’d probably be dying of laughter, but it’s a bit harder to smile when I’m the rube!

DeathSpank strikes a delicate balance: The game swings back and forth from laughing with the player to laughing at them. The line between performer and audience is a thin one, and it can even change based on how many people happen to be watching the game at a given time. At one point when Hanah was in the room, I got into an insult contest with the aforementioned orphan that quickly degenerated into a long string of “I know you are, but what am I?” retorts. While it was tedious choosing the same dialogue option approximately ten times in a row, I had become the entertainer again. I was putting on a show for someone else, creating a piece of humor with the game as my partner. Ultimately, the entire act looped back around and the joke became about how long Hanah would put up with my idiotic dedication to the bit.

Comedy is difficult, and the cognitive dissonance that games like DeathSpank require makes things even harder. I think DeathSpank is hilarious, but it also illustrates the complexity of making funny in games. Because of their participatory nature, games invite those looking for a laugh to take part in creating one for themselves. A joke that comes across as hilarious and unexpected to an audience member feels different to those performing it. Additionally, it is much easier to laugh at the incompetence or bemusement of a hapless straight man when you aren’t the butt of the joke.

However, what may seem like a practical joke on the player quickly becomes a piece of two-man stand up when another person walks into the room and unwittingly assumes the role of the audience. The player and their relative normalcy is an integral part of DeathSpank’s comedy act. Armor like the “Epic Chest of Awesomeness,” with its description, “Unimaginable yet oddly specific power is contained within,” is funny because the player is hewing to old habits and expectations learned from traditional, straight-faced RPGs in which the armor’s name would match the serious tone of the story and action. When the player acts as the straight man, DeathSpank’s puns and absurdities achieve the juxtaposition that makes them them funny. Without a player who is flexible enough to act as an audience and an entertainer, DeathSpank’s poop jokes wouldn’t have a punch line. And as we all know, a poop joke without a punch line just stinks.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

EXP Podcast #89: Red Dead Roundup Part 2

We are back on the saddle, this time to talk about all the spoiler-laden story elements of Red Dead Redemption. Such an ambitious and expansive game requires quite a bit of wrangling, so this week's podcast is extra long to compensate. This week, we delve into Red Dead as it relates to other Western mythologies, the ups and downs of open world story telling, and the meaning of redemption in a barren and nihilistic landscape. If you have thoughts on the game yourself, we encourage you to chime in below in the comments section.

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: 62 min 37 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Sensationalist: Guilt and Responsibility in Bioshock 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.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock 2.

My first venture into Rapture revealed the dangerous affects of unmitigated self-interest. The denizens of Andrew Ryan’s underwater city cared only for themselves, and it caused the Libertarian paradise to eat itself alive.The protagonist of the first Bioshock is an automaton within this decaying world. While the decision to save or harvest little sisters has a narrative affect, their presence seems more environmental than personal. Bioshock 2 offers similar binary decision points, but by creating an intimate relationship between the Big Daddy protagonist and his Little Sister all grown up, the game evokes sensations of guilt and responsibility the first title could never have achieved.
Guilt is a difficult emotion to evoke in games. In order to feel guilt, you must in some way feel responsible for unfavorable actions. Choice in many games is superficial and largely meaningless. When choice does have an emotional element, say in Mass Effect 2 for example, it may also merely present two justifiable options. Shepard’s decisions can be well defended, regardless of consequences. To create a sense of guilt, players must feel responsible for not necessarily ideal circumstances, all without feeling cheated by the game designers into selecting sub-optimal outcomes.

The Big Daddy from the first Bioshock is a clockwork monster, mercilessly protecting Little Sisters. They seem to have less agency than Jack, who himself is controlled by Fontaine’s “would you kindly.” Sophia Lamb in Bioshock 2 paints Delta as a monstrous creation, ruining his beloved Little Sister Eleanor with his mad pursuit. The first character to test that theory is Grace Holloway, a woman who attempts to stop Delta by sending an army of splicers at him. If the player decides not to kill her when given the option, Grace tells him a monster would never show mercy. By choosing to let her live, Delta shows agency and moral intelligence. Thus, the responsibility for future actions are his.
Similar reminders occur when players are faced with the decision to kill Stanley Poole and Gilbert Alexander. All these decisions influence who Eleanor will become.When I killed Gilbert’s mutated splicer form, I still felt a sense of guilt, even when I felt justified in my actions. Likewise, finishing off the Big Daddy version of Mike Meltzer, a man trapped in Rapture to be with his daughter, I could not help but feel remorse. How would Eleanor interpret these actions? In an excellent article on a similar theme, Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer had this to say:

This game makes me feel the weight of compassion and responsibility. I won't soon forget confronting the rat-like Stanley Poole in the train station, every bit of me itching to kill him and make it painful. He stood there cowering, defenseless, bent at the waist, gripping his head. I watched him for a moment, savoring his suffering. And then I realized that she was watching too. Eleanor was there with me, just as she was 10 years before, when her mother faced a similar opportunity to kill a man. I turned and walked out the door. Near the end of the game, some 15 hours later, I discovered I was right. She was watching; and she learned.

Eleanor ultimately becomes the type of person Delta appears to be. If Delta seeks vengeance, so will Eleanor. If Delta harvests children to survive, Eleanor too will commit herself to survival, regardless of the sacrifices. Being responsible for another person’s identity goes beyond responsibility for a few disparate outcomes. My version of Delta would probably not have let Sophia Lam live. When Eleanor forgives her and saves her life in the “good” ending, it evokes a sense of responsibility for something greater than the self. She becomes a better person than those before her.
The player earns this outcome by saving Little Sisters rather than harvesting them. Protecting the children while they collect ADAM is both difficult and time consuming. Bioshock 2 asks the player to make a sacrifice by choosing to become responsible for the safety of another. Although the Little Sisters cannot actually be harmed, the game evokes a sense of guilt when the player dies during ADAM collection. Failing your responsibility can be an emotionally powerful experience.

I felt this same sense of guilt when I gave Eleanor a Big Sister outfit, and again every time I called her to aid me in battle. From beginning to end, Bioshock 2 is about taking responsibility for your own actions and accepting responsibility for Eleanor’s fate. The statues of Delta in Persephone, visible through the eyes of a Little Sister, emphasize the weird of these decisions. While the circumstances in Rapture are out of your hands, Eleanor’s destiny is not. When saving Eleanor means harming others and potentially harming her, justifiable actions can still engender a sense of guilt and remorse. By exploiting these emotions, 2K Marin makes even a Big Daddy feel remarkably human.