Thursday, March 29, 2012

The False Dichotomies of Mass Effect

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The False Dichotomies of Mass Effect.

Amidst the fractured sentiments regarding the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, I really wanted to write an article that was not actually about the ending in any significant way. From the beginning, Bioware has done an increasingly good job complicating their own binary system they established in the first game. It's actually a bit of a shame that the first game established such strong expectations regarding the Paragon and Renegade system. If they were given free range today, I do not think they would tie the series so closely to such a stark dichotomy, even if they did successfully problematize it in the end.

To talk a bit about the ending, I am genuinely surprised so many have raised issues about the Paragon or Renegade system as pieces of the argument for a better altered ending. Some have claimed that being forced to make a Paragon decision is a betrayal.  I completely disagree that this is even possible, but I understand the sentiment comes from Bioware's unfortunate decision to associate particular ends with each approach to decisions. If community management is about the management of expectations, than a core system built into the very first game set the studio up for failure in many regards in its conclusion. If anything, I admire their admittedly last-minute attempt to truly complicate the binary they established early on.

The multi-colored ending has also received ire for associating certain characters or decisions with the Paragon/Renegade system. In the mind of many players, the color red is permanently associated with "Paragon", and Paragon is permanently associated with "Bad", therefore their final decision is colored to give them the opposite response they were given. I chose the "green" ending, so maybe I would have had a more visceral reaction if my Paragon-ish Shepard received a "renegade-red" color scheme.  But if anything, I find the reversal fascinating. It forces players to question the outcomes of decisions they believed led to predictable and easy-to-read outcomes. If anything, Bioware should have completely abandoned the color scheme at the games end entirely. Blue and red have a meaning that does not correctly align with the true malleability of the Paragon/Renegade system. If they wanted to avoid color-fueled antagonisms, they should have hammered home the false dichotomy angle much earlier.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

EXP Podcast #165: Digital Religion

How do video games handle religion and spirituality? It's a question that's been inspiring a fair amount of buzz. It's a big topic, so we decided to add a third seat on this week's show. Jorge and I are excited to welcome Richard Clark to the podcast. Richard's a prolific writer who regularly tackles issues of religion and morality in video games. As an added bonus, he's also an all around nice guy! Be sure to check him out on Twitter, Kill Screen, Christ and Pop Culture, and Game Church. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for listening!

Some discussion starters:

- What are some of your favorite examples of religion in games?

- What kind of game (e.g., open world, adventure, strategy, etc.) is most conducive to tackling questions of spirituality?Open world vs. scripted story for considering spirituality?

- Have you ever unexpectedly encountered religion/spirituality in a game?

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 here. 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: 53 min 55 sec
- "How do games handle the divine? Accidentally." by Yannick Lejacq, via Kill Screen
- "Video games are a good fit for theological exploration," by Brian Crecente, via The Verge
- "Capcom Videogame ‘Asura’s Wrath’ Draws Hindu Critics’ Wrath," by Sriram Vadlamani, via Tech Wire Asia
- "Study: Video games depict religion as violent and problematic (interview)," by Stefanie Fogel, via Venture Beat
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

City of Clicks

My ongoing exploration of Facebook games has recently brought me to City of Wonder's crowded streets. The game's fundamental structure is pretty solid: it's a serviceable version of Civilization that runs in a browser. There's notable history figures, upgrade paths, city management dynamics; pretty much everything you need for this type of game. As is the case with nearly all Facebook games, a tiered energy system limits the amount of action you can take in any given period of time. Of course, you can always circumvent this limit by paying money for more currency or by getting more of your friends to play the game and gift you items. Nothing too groundbreaking.

Personally, the most important thing that has come from the experience are some realizations about the current state of platform and technology behind the Facebook game scene itself. Simply put: from a pure technical perspective, City of Wonder is inefficient. Actions that would take one or two clicks on a traditional PC game routinely require double the amount of inputs in a Facebook game.

Consider the simple example of moving one of my buildings one square to the left. To do this, I have to:

1. Click on the build menu
2. Click on the building I want to move
3. Click on the "move" menu
4. Click on the space I want to move it to

It would be so much faster if I could right-click to get context menus, bulk-select objects by clicking and dragging, or simply use keyboard shortcuts. However, because of the limitations of the browser and the programming language of most Facebook games (usually flash) this just isn't possible right now.

I don't know much about flash, but I imagine that these problems will be solved some day and Facebook games will get more efficient and capable of handling complex actions. But let's just put on our tinfoil hats for a minute: do Facebook and the companies invested in making Facebook games have any incentive to make these games more efficient?

Inefficiency and clunky interfaces are integral to many Facebook games. The point of microtransactions in games like City of Wonder, Dragon Age, or Ravenwood Fair is to give you a chance to pay your way out of having to slog through tedious actions and wait times. For those who aren't paying for more actions, including large amounts of busy work and ponderous menus extends the amount of productive playtime.

Since I don't buy things in Facebook games, the single-click/single-action model still ensures I spend a minimum amount of time in the game. With some more intelligent mouse input and a few keyboard macros, I could probably burn through all my Facebook gaming in a half the time it usually takes me. Once I did that, I would just quit playing, which is exactly what game developers want to avoid.

Now I won't go so far as to claim there is some kind of organized conspiracy to keep flash simplistic and Facebook gaming clunky, but I can't help but think that the technology and the monetization models seen in some of the most popular games has had a large influence on Facebook game design. Facebook games let you pay to cut through the tedious stuff, so what impetus is there to remove said tedium?

So how can we create meaningful game experiences on a platform largely defined by the inclusion of meaningless action? I don't have the answer yet, but I'm working on it. For now, I'll just say that it's a tricky problem created by the confluence of technology, game design, and economics. It's also an exciting problem, and its novelty continues to draw talented designers (including Sid Meier himself) to the community. Given enough time and innovation, I hope we'll be able to build something more greater than a city of clicks.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

'Journey' and Seeing the Best in My Fellow Gamer

This week over at PopMatters, I wrote about Journey's role in inspiring some inspiring thoughts about online communication.

Like pretty much everyone else who played it, I was pretty impressed by Journey. Beautiful, triumphant, masterful; I agree with it all. For me, the challenge is honing those emotional impressions into lessons I can learn from.

I decided to take a closer look at why I felt so optimistic after playing the game. A big reason was because I felt like all the people I met were having a similarly upbeat experience. Think about that for a second: random, public multiplayer interactions as positive experiences? That's a rare thing.

So how did thatgamecompany pull this off? I argue they did it by distilling communication and then letting me unwittingly fill in the gaps with my biases. Without voices, character customization, or mechanically-detrimental multiplayer actions, it's nearly impossible to act like a jerk towards another player. When you can't yell at or hamper another player, the worst you can really do is ignore them, a decidedly neutral action. In the vacuum of explicit communication, I was free to project my predispositions on others. Since I wanted to believe everyone was having a good time, experimenting with the game, and generally being polite, that's all I saw. The limited nature of the communication made me feel closer to my multiplayer friends.

There's actually a somewhat disturbing implication here: is Journey just a big confirmation bias experiment? Was I really connecting with those other people, or was I projecting only what I wanted to see and then agreeing with the things I wanted to believe while ignoring any other behaviors. If the key to making a pleasant random multiplayer experience is limiting expression, are we really ever going to get to know other people. Sometimes, communication is simply ugly.

These are all questions for another day. For now, I just want to enjoy the opportunity to see the best in my fellow gamer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

EXP Podcast #164: Journey Debrief

At long last, the much awaited Journey from thatgamecompany is available on PSN. Jenova Chen's discussion of his own creations always seem so lofty, can his team deliver what Scott and I have so eagerly desired since its announcement? Join us while we discuss our personal experiences, how Journey is more "gamey" than we imagined, and how the game tells a story. We go quite long in this one, so we appreciate everyone who puts in the time to listen. The task of discussing Journey is not an easy one, but we hope you enjoy this voyage with us nonetheless. As always, we would love to hear your thoughts on the game. Please leave them 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 here. 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: 53 min 11 sec
- Music, "Apotheosis" and "Final Confluence", by Austin Wintory from Journey. Find more of his work here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The End of a Hero

Brace yourself, because this is a post about the end of Mass Effect 3. However, I will not wade into the quagmire of ongoing "indoctrination" theory and the massive attempt by players, almost by definition those with the most emotional investment in the series, to retroactively change the game's controversial  finale. That journey, my friends, is for another time. Instead, let's pretend this proverbial "shit storm" were not happening and talk about one aspect of the ending. This is where I say in big bold letters...

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3. Oh, and also Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Halo 3, and Halo: Reach.

Wow, our heroes have it rough. Shepard flies her ship all around the galaxy, forging peace, kicking Cerberus ass, planning for the future, and then she is expected die, just like so many others adventurers before her. Now I chose the synthesis, aka "green", ending, and I am relatively happy with overall outcome of the game if not the last five minutes. Like other voices around the internet, all of Mass Effect 3 from Thane's death on feels like a denouement to me, and a damn good one. For the most part, the ending hits all the expected notes science-fiction has tread in the past. When Shepard breathed her last breath, it felt like an end. It felt more complete than I had expected. But why does Shepard have to die?

Now look, I am a grown-up. I am not asking for some happy fairy tale that turns the Normandy into a flying unicorn that bursts through the Citadel to spear the Casper and bring Shepard back to life. I like my stories with a healthly mix of darkness and ambiguity, but the death of the hero is getting old. For the most part, death is a narratively selfish act. Shepard turns to dust, but not really, she becomes a legend, a figure remembered into the eons. She may have ruined the galaxy for everyone, but she doesn't even stick around to understand the repercussions of her actions. I say Shepard got off easy.

Put simply, the death of the hero rarely enriches the story as much as expected. Maybe this is why so many come back to life. Master Chief almost died in Halo 3, received a grand send-off back on earth that melted the hearts of players around the world. Thankfully he actually survived. Otherwise we would have what, a statue? Is that really what we want from our heroes? Deification? Halo Reach actually killed off the entire cast, but then again, the game was never about their personal identities. In fact, I would argue it was about Master Chief and the unseen burden he carries throughout the series. It is about the nameless and faceless soldiers, represented by the protagonist, who made Master Chief a hero in the first place.

Few creative minds understand death in storytelling as well as Joss Whedon. He knows how to milk the potential death of a hero for all its worth, and then make said hero work even harder. In the Firefly episode "Out of Gas," he lets viewers know right from the beginning that this episode is not an uplifting one. He makes us believe Mal might genuinely die, and we believe it (Joss Whedon is ruthless like that). More importantly, we know Mal is ready to die. That he made his choice, stuck with it, and is willing to sacrifice everything for his crew. We have walked through the cold ship with our brave hero, and we are ready for his death. Whedon takes us to the brink, gives a good look at death, teaches us a lesson, and then keeps the story moving.

He did the same thing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The titular heroine dies twice. Her return in the sixth season is not triumphant, but terrifying and deeply unsettling. It reminds us that heroes carry a burden, that relationships are not miraculously mended when the good guys win, and that there is no happily ever after when the lights fade. In the "Whedonverse", death as a narrative devise exists in service to relationships. Friends die, and others carry on painfully, filled with regret and loss. 

Mass Effect has always been about relationships. But in the end, a valuable opportunity is wasted. Death is easy. Living on when the war is over? That is a more difficult and valuable story to write.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Contemplative Solitude in Games

My latest PopMatters article is now life: Contemplative Solitude in Games

This post originally came out my need to talk about Dear Esther. The thing is, I already wrote about the game back in 2009 and specifically discussed its sensations of solitude. About four years after its release, not a whole lot has changed. It is still a stunningly beautiful game that handles loss and loneliness incredibly well. Everything I said in 2009 is true, if not more so, in Dear Esther's latest iteration.

It also fits the topic perfectly, because the game itself depends upon players engaging with and digesting the semi-randomly distributed narrative chunks. This involved putting the audio into the context in which you find it, patching these together in some sort of narrative, and even thinking about how the story and the environment relate to your own life. For a game lauded for its minimalism, it arguably asks a lot of its players.

I am also glad I touched upon solitude in Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, two games that create amazing environments in which my thoughts can wander - itself an engaging act of play. What I did cut were similar feelings evoked by the wonderfully crafted Dark Souls and the "differently crafted" World of Warcraft. Chris Dahlen wrote a fantastic piece that captures my thoughts on these sensations while describing his adventure in Sen's Fortress. While he focuses on difficulty, the personal nature of his story I think highlights the feelings of solitude you'll find in the peaks and valleys of Dark Souls. In fact, the difficulty creates these moments of quiet thought by demanding players both calm themselves down and prepare for the next threat. I mention World of Warcraft because, unlike the others, the "massive multiplayer" element makes those moments of solitude uniquely meaningful - like finding a secluded and serene place to rest in the midst of a bustling city. Flying above the nether, late into the night of a local server, can feel special. The creation contemplative solitude is a valuable contribution to play.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

EXP Podcast #163: GDC Highlights 2012

The yearly Game Developers Conference has come and gone, and while Scott and I sadly missed the event proper, we did keep our hear to the ground. This week on the podcast, we discuss some highlights that caught our attention. Join us as we touch upon Valve's approach to Portal 2, mobile pricing models, the problem with DRM, and the "mind your own business" mentality. As always, we would love to hear your thoughts on anything GDC related 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 here. 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 min 42 sec
- "Witcher developer CD Projekt Red abandons DRM for future releases," by Eric Caoili via Gamasutra
- "GDC 2012: 'Don't underprice your mobile product' - Cave COO," by Kris Graft via Gamasutra
- "GDC 2012: Humor, meaning, cooperation and ambition: the microtalks," by Leigh Alexander via Gamasutra
- "GDC 2012: Portal 2: Making a sequel to a 'perfect' game," by Tom Curtis via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Waiting for Journey

I'm writing this while Journey is downloading to my PS3. It's a game I've awaited for a long time. Thanks to my work schedule and the PS3's bafflingly slow download speeds, I'll have some time for a few thoughts before I embark. Yeah, that's right: people still complain about the Sony's network speeds (or at least I do). Anyway...

I realized that It's been a long time since developer thatgamecompany released a game. It's strange to think that Flower came out over three years ago. Thankfully, time hasn't wilted its petals. In terms of design and presentation, it remains one of the most unique and striking games of the past generation. It remains one of those games people bring up when they feel like rehashing the whole "games as art" argument. Whatever your feelings on the subject, it's hard to ignore the amount of time and effort thatgamecompany poured into it, as they do with all their games. After all, Flower came nearly three years after Flow. It's poetic that, through some confluence of development time and marketing cycles, they've managed to put out a game about once every three years.

In a world of annualized sequels in which franchises get shopped out to different developers every other year, having a single company spend several years crafting the game they want to release is a treat. Thatgamecompany's games are never the flashiest or the most feature-dense experiences, but they always feel deliberate. Rather than use games a mode to transmit points or test reflexes, Flow and Flower convey themes and tones. Their games have a certain elegance that makes them simultaneously simpler and more complex than most other commercially-released games.

Thatgamecompany takes its time when creating games, but the company isn't cutoff from the world between releases. Studio leaders Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen routinely give presentations, sit for interviews, participate in podcasts (check out Chen's appearance on Giant Bomb's 2011 show for particularly insightful observations about everything from emotions in games to the hazards of Internet dating). Outspoken designers, especially those so closely associated with a major publisher, are quite rare. Getting to hear their thoughts on the industry and design philosophy is a pleasure usually confined to a limited GDC-oriented audience.

Of course, thatgamecompany deliberately avoids talking too much about certain things: namely, the specifics of their own games. Flower and Flow have the basic tutorials that go only far enough to describe the mechanics. When you start those games, you are told how to move, but not the limits of that movement, what kinds of dynamics arise from those movements, or even why you would want to move in the first place. The games are about experimentation and discovery, piecing together the visual and kinetic elements of an unfamiliar world and slowly coming to understand it.

They are about starting out in a limited place, both geographically and intellectually, and charting the course to a one. Sometimes these trips are simple: in Flow, you quickly learn that inward pointing arrows send you deeper into the level and outward pointing levels let you surface. Sometimes, things are more complicated: Flower's story is one about the reconciliation between the natural and built environment, but is such a thing even possible in our world? In any case, whether it is learning a new control scheme or comprehending a thematic message, thatgamecompany is exceptionally talented at creating these layered voyages of discovery. Journeys, you might call them.

Well, the time is at hand. Journey is downloaded and installed. I'll see you on the other side!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Portable Gaming's Siren Song

This week at PopMatters, I wrote about how the God of War: Origins Collection has shaped my view of the portable game market. To put it simply: I think Sony and Nintendo are largely on the wrong track.

Playing the God of War games has been a blast, almost to the extent of making me wish I had picked up a PSP to play them when they first came out. As I write in my article, this probably would have been a bad idea. Most of the things I like about the game (a full DualShock control scheme, great frame rate, detailed art and presentation) would have been severely diminished on the small screen. For the past few years, dedicated handheld consoles have seemingly been an exercise in dealing with compromised versions of home gaming experiences.

While all this was happening, iOS has not-so-quietly gobbled up a huge portion of the portable game market. In the face of this new and imminent threat, Sony (and to a large extent, Nintendo) have doubled down on their old techniques. The Sony and Nintendo models revolve around cramming more technology into a smaller packages while bolting on the features that have truly revolutionized portable gaming in the past few years. Touch screens, 3D, analog sticks, and $40 games aren't what made the iOS ecosystem the most exciting portable space out there; it's the ecosystem, not the hardware.

Now that people have games on their phones and iPods, they can be connected to their games and their friends by simply carrying around the accessories they'd otherwise use on a daily basis. The App Store has never been about trying to simulate a couch experience; it's more like a neo-arcade where you congregate virtually with your friends to swap high scores and throw a few quarters down on a new game you've never played before. On a Vita or 3DS, this type of experience (as well as pricing structure) is anemic at best.

So instead of changing with the times, old portable game hardware companies are locked in a death struggle over an increasingly small, conservative market. As mobile games get increasingly experimental in terms of format and business models, Sony and Nintendo keep trying to sell the same old compromised couch experience by singing a siren song.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

EXP Podcast #162: Simulated Sex Games

Turn down the lights and turn up the Marvin Gaye: this week, it's all about sex. Inspired by Rich Stanton's recent article on the subject of sex in video games, we take a look at the more amorous side of medium we love. We talk about everything from Wii waggling to polyamory in this episode, so there's bound to be something to arouse your interest. As always, we're all about free love around here, so feel free to express yourself in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What games portray sex in a notable way?

- When it comes to portrayals of sex in video games, how do we differentiate schlock from good stuff?

- How does one's connection (emotional, physical, or otherwise) to their avatar impact the meaning of sex in 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 here. 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: 33 min 33 sec
- "Why Can't Games Do Sex?" by Rich Stanton, via Eurogamer
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Skyrim Abandonment

I had heard the jokes, but I ignored them. I made myself a promise. I committed myself to the cause. Others had told me they never finished Oblivion, or any Elder Scrolls game for that matter, and that the lore was so rich, the game world so vast, that actually playing the game all the way through was nigh impossible. I was going to finish Skyrim. I failed.

I remember my avatar's last location. The sneaky Argonian still sits crouched in the shadows in some ancient dungeon, atop a walkway looking down at Draugr corpses I had quickly dispatched moments ago. That poor character has been waiting atop that stone path since New Year's day, over two months.

I never became bored of Skyrim per se. Sixty hours in, I was having a blast. It handily earned a place in my top three gaming experiences of the year, and even though I have since abandoned its majestic Nordic lands, I have no regrets about my decision. I love the expansive world, the massive sense of scale, the persistent sensation that although my character is dragonborn, she is still a small fish in a very large pond.

Unfortunately, this same sense of scale has made my eventual return daunting. I struggled so hard to narrow my narrative focus and engage in story lines to completion before moving on to new adventures. Even so, my memory has grown foggy and the idea of delving back into a jumble of story arcs is overwhelming. Before I left, I also had such grand plans. I was saving money to buy something big, maybe a new home somewhere, in some city I had researched beforehand. I was also investing in a certain skill tree and planned on upgrading ... blacksmithing was it? Or maybe enchanting? I think I had a system going...

I left for good reason. The holidays were ripe with gaming options, and I happily consumed a myriad of triple-A and indie games at my leisure. But the farther and farther I roamed from Skyrim, the harder I imagined my eventual return. I will play Skyrim again, to be sure, but when I do, I will have to commit myself again, devote another sixty hours into the experience, and who has that kind of time? Mass Effect 3 just hit store shelves today, and I have another galaxy to save. Soon, Journey will grab my attention, if I can even pull myself away from multiplayer gaming. I have failed. Skyrim's hero has abandoned her. I only hope absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Homeostasis and the Asshole

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Homeostasis and the Asshole.

This is an admittedly design heavy piece about understanding games as systems independent of the player, or at least player agency. At its heart though, it is about we as players and type of worlds we want to inhabit. Personally, I want to world that fits snugly, that I can explore without worrying I will encounter the hand of god forcing me onto illogical paths. I want game worlds that bend and stretch and react to my decisions elegantly. And frankly, this is asking a lot.

How do we understand and analyze these qualities in a game in the first place? I think homeostasis is a good place to start, in which case we should imagine the game world devoid of my choice, inhabited by an ideal robotic player. Imagine the grasslands in Far Cry 2 as the set of a film instead of a vibrant world prone to chaos.  This ideal player might have an adventure, moving one location to another, killing a few bad guys, running into trouble, without over altering the set's variables more than expected. The fictional player may never get lost, never all off a cliff unwittingly, never break a sweat even. Now what if I messed it all up? What if chose to only travel by foot, or only use a pistol, or, like a crazy person, play with permanent death? How much give does this system have?

In the case of Far Cry 2, quite a bit in fact. Like our own bodies, these miraculous self-balancing machines, the system of Far Cry 2 regulates player input elegantly and beautifully. In fact, the most compelling game worlds implement homeostatic features with ease. I like this vision of games as systems, separate from my choices. It means each play experience is a meeting of two systems - we both redefine ourselves in relation to a mutual give and take.