Thursday, March 28, 2013

Finding a Place for Impact Games

Pipeline Trouble screenshot and quote via The Escapist
My latest PopMatters article is now life: Finding a Place for Impact Games.

I should say right now, after today, I deeply regret the title of this piece. Really, the issue concerning social impact games isn't about "finding" a place at all. We already found a place for these games, it's right next to all the other games we play and consume on a day-to-day basis. They can find a place on Kongregate, or their own websites, on consoles or on handhelds, or even on the websites like the New York Times. No, this is more about demanding their rightful place in our gaming culture, not "finding" one.

I went to a GDC talk today, the last of the Game Design Challenges, which for the past ten years have asked designer luminaries to invent game design ideas around simple themes, from love to religion. The host and creator, Eric Zimmerman, is bringing the series to a close this year rather than hand off hosting duties to another person. While I suspect he just doesn't want to participate anymore, he reasoning is that there is no need in today's game design environment for thematic challenges. As he states it, "games have arrived."

Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but where exactly are we and when did we get here? When did game design stop being a process and become a destination? When did we all decide that, well, games are accepted "enough" that we can stop outrageous imaginings because we'd achieved our goal? Have authors, of either fiction or non-fiction, stopped imposing challenges on themselves? Have film-makers given up experimentation and exploration of controversial themes because some famous director took home an Oscar? The idea that games have "arrived" isn't just short-sighted, it's offensive.

There are people who have dedicated their lives to making games that change the lives of people half-way across the world. There are people brazen enough to make deeply personal games, or games about real life, in an effort to educate or criticize. But at the same time, their work is being sidelined, quietly ignored, and fought over. Critical and radical game design is a challenge, a daily struggle, and we have a long way to go. We shoot ourselves in the foot to believe for a second the fight has been won.

Well, enough with the short rant. I do want to add that I was deeply shocked at TVO's decision to remove Pipeline Trouble from the game. During my masters study, I interviewed the team behind Inside the Haiti Earthquake, another game that sought to model some of the systems of aid relief as a companion to a documentary on the subject. The game designers were given a rare opportunity to delve into real world systems within digital systems, all while receiving liberal funding and with the support of the documentarians. The result is, in my opinion, an excellent example of documentary game design.

The decision to pull Pipeline Trouble shows a reactionary organization in which game designers are liabilities. I seriously doubt game design experimentation under the TVO umbrella will recover from this event unharmed. This might not mean much to a lot of readers, but this is tragedy for the already vulnerable impact games community.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

EXP Podcast #217: Finding Game-Life Balance

Image from Flickr user Jamiesrabbits
We get it: you're busy. Professional, familial, and personal obligations have a habit of expanding to the point where video games get crowded out. However, all is not lost: inspired by Tina Amini's post, this week's podcast is a discussion about how to gracefully fit games into hectic schedules. Jorge and I talk share the secrets of how we keep up with every game released (spoiler: we don't) and how to stay connected in a way that makes playing a game a pleasure rather than a burden. The nice thing about podcasts is that you can listen to one and play a game simultaneously, so after you're done multitasking jump into the comments with your feedback!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- Runtime: 37 min 13 sec
- "How to Balance Video Games with Real Life," by Tina Amini, via Kotaku
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Waiting on BioShock Infinite

Maybe it's just my impatience, but this BioShock Infinite download seems to be going very slowly. Then again, I've already waited over two and a half years for this game, so I suppose another hour isn't such a big deal. Just about a year ago, I wrote a similar article about Journey, another high-profile game that was years in the making. It was nice to take a few minutes to reflect on the long development and preview cycle, so I thought I'd write out a few of my final pre-game thoughts.

I'm having a hard time coming up with another game that has had more pre-release coverage. From a cynical perspective, I'm impressed by how Irrational and 2K have used the gaming press as an incredibly strong arm of their marketing campaign. For years now, BioShock Infinite has been the subject of magazine covers, developer interviews, and video previews. We got articles about Elizabeth's great AI and Columbia's magnificent skyline before the game was ever out. More optimistically, it was refreshing to forgo a lot of the inane secrecy that surrounds most games. In an environment where gun models are locked behind NDAs, the idea that we got so much insight into the game was novel.

All in all, I hope more companies emulate BioShock Infinite's marketing campaign. Hearing about the challenges of designing intelligent AI or listening to Ken Levine talk about the game's cultural allusions is far more interesting than a series of jump cut-heavy accompanied by dub step. True, the final months have seen quite a few large billboards and promotional videos, but it was nice to have the conversation leading up to the game revolve around the craft of game-making rather than wild speculation.

For those of us in the critical bubble, this kind of huge marketing blitz is unnecessary: of course we'll be buying it. But the reality is that BioShock doesn't have the broad cultural cache Call of Duty, Super Mario or Angry Birds. It took years for the original game to hit the 4 million mark, a number that's nothing to sneeze at, but is still lower than many other marquee titles. With Infinite 2K is clearly hoping that it's critical prestige is accompanied by equally sterling sales numbers.

Alright, that percentage is getting close, so one final thought: regardless of how the game turns out, it's been a pleasure following Ken Levine as he becomes a kind of elder statesmen of the medium. Hearing someone who is so candid about his successes and failures talk about not only his game, but the craft of making games in general is really valuable. After watching his latest interview with Giant Bomb, I'll be interested to see what he does next. Making the kinds of games he makes takes a long time, so who knows how many more we'll get.

Well, it's all loaded up now! See you on the other side.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

'God of War: Ascension' and The Problem with Prequels

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about God of War: Ascension as a prime example of why I hate prequels.

I've probably talked about this before either on the site or the podcast, so I won't go too deep here. The point is that all the chronological weirdness and retroactive character development that happens in prequels is compounded by the mechanical iteration that happens between each game in a long-running series. The result is a game whose overall story becomes muddled from a narrative and mechanical perspective. At a certain point, you just have to trash the entire idea of a single storyline and embrace the idea of a broader mythos. Take the Star Wars universe vs. the Batman mythos for example: one has become a bloated, tortured mess of conflicting events and ridiculous narrative backflips while the other remains one of the great pieces of modern folklore.

Instead, let me say a few more things about Ascension itself. Jorge and I probably won't talk about it on the podcast, since I recommended that he skip it. It's not that it's a bad game, I just haven't enjoyed it as much as the others (and I've played them all). As I say in the column, it's hard to get reinvested in Kratos' backstory when so much of it has already been so fruitfully mined and subsequently resolved in such a cathartic fashion. How do you top fighting your way to the top of Olympus and pummeling Zeus to death? Maybe you don't.

Unfortunately, there are also structural changes that I feel hamper the overall experience. The fighting system has been rebalanced in a way that locks combos behind a meter that is charged by landing successful hits and depleted by getting hit. This might make sense for multiplayer (as you might want to make players earn their big combos), but in the single player it feels unnecessarily limiting. You end up doing the same low-level combos over and over again because your move set starts out at the bottom of the tree at the beginning of each battle and enemies tend not to put up all that much of a fight. Other things (like changing the grapple button and the counter-attack timing) might appeal to some people, but I feel it gives the game much slower, less skill intensive flow. The removal of dedicated special weapons and the curbed magic system combine with the game's overall ease to make it a much duller experience than its predecessors.

Some sections actually benefit from this less punishing difficulty, as the camera often zooms out to ridiculous lengths. God of War has always enjoyed its wide angles, but Ascension has a habit of putting the view over the combat. In many cases, it's easy to lose track of which pixels you're controlling and which ones are you enemies. It doesn't help that, especially in the run up to Delphi, the colors and environmental patterns make Kratos and his enemies blend into the background.

From a general perspective, Ascension still looks, sounds, and feels fine; it's just not as sharp as its predecessors. Everything feels a bit subdued and the fact that you already know how the story is going to turn out doesn't do it any favors.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

EXP Podcast #216: Hive, Board Games, and Developing AI

Hive tiles set.
New technology that aims to revolutionize gaming is around the corner, yet millions of people are still happy to sit down around a table and place an old-fashioned board game. The two industries have been growing, but have they been growing closer together or farther apart? Join Scott and me this week to discuss the relationships between board games and video games, then stick around while we chat with Sean Colombo about his experience translating the game Hive to the digital world.

As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section and, if you've been playing any fun board games lately, let us know what they are!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- Hive, by Blueline Studios
- Runtime: 41 min 34 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Games and Political Motivation

Anyone who's lived in a college town is intimately familiar with the street solicitors for non-profit. You know the ones, the foot soldiers of the World Wildlife Foundation and countless other organizations, the confront strangers in hope of getting donations or at least an email address. Other than pamphleteers, they are the lowest level of strategy to achieve political motivation in-person.

What is the logic behind soliciting donations in the street? Above all else, making eye contact, in this day and age, is a disruptive act. You might be out shopping or picking up groceries, and suddenly you are physically confronted with a political issue. Even if, like most people, you ignore the solicitors and walk away, the seed is planted, the issue remains. Enjoy your smoothie, but by the way, the Sumatran Tiger is nearly extinct.

Al Gore, in his capacity as an environmentalist advocate, has recently launched Reality Drop, an internet tool and project that "gamifies" climate change conversations by creating online "street soliciters". To play, users copy environmentalist responses and paste them into the comments sections of articles about climate change. See someone denying anthropogenic climate change? Just share a tweet-sized response and you climb the social ladder of Reality Drop.

While I personally find the implementation of game-like motivation elements deplorable, counter-productive, and forced, I  understand the motivation behind these efforts. Issue organizations have long struggled to maintain relevancy and the attention of the public.  In fact, the project isn't all bad. It does include valuable resources and aggregates relevant news articles. Like street petitioners, Reality Drop tries to inject an issue into public conscious using games.

Of course this isn't the only attempt at connecting games with some form of political mobilization. Even the recent NASA hosted Dark Side Game jam will use the game products made at the event as public relations tools for the association. Again, this isn't a bad thing per se, but is becoming common.

When it comes to political mobilization, everything is an act of desperation. Cold-calling district citizens or having poorly-paid students corner strangers in hopes of a twenty dollar donation might not be glamorous, but it can be effective. Gamification is no different.

The methods have changed, but the strategies and motivations are the same. How do organizations, many with too few resources as it is, capitalize on games? They make mistakes, a lot of them, churn out terrible games, abuse gamification, and they learn. I can't blame people for trying.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Touchy Feely: Tomb Raider and Haptic Design

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Touchy Feely: Tomb Raider and Haptic Design

Apparently I love the way some games convey a sense of space and physicality through touch, specifically animations of characters touching walls and other people or animals. If you trace the movement Lara's hands make in Tomb Raider, for example, you will find them tracing out patterns of interaction with her environment in really clever ways.

Of course it makes sense for an adventure game based heavily on platforming to include tactile animations. Indeed, I have actually written about this "touchy subject" in regards to Prince of Persia and Ico, two games that melded game design and haptic sensations beautifully. I should say, not all games do. Most character movements in first-person games, almost necessarily, feel stiff and forced, failing to detail the world in their movement at all. Mirror's Edge is an obvious exception, but I might include Portal 2 in there, if for no other reason than the high-fives and teasing animations in its multiplayer component. The Mass Effect series, even though it's third-person, also feel clunky and unrealistic, as does Gears of War (although that's probably the point).

Some 2-D games also create a sense of space or flesh out characters with touch. The way Super Meat Boy squashes down a bit when he lands from a jump is lovely touch. The same can be said for the way the ninja in Mark of the Ninja leans forward when walking, heavily and assuredly, as though stalking prey. These little touches, particularly when they meld with other design aspects, such as Lara's frantic dodge maneuver, can add depth to characters and a richness to the world.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

EXP Podcast #215: Servers, Scores, and 'SimCity'

This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll look down and whisper "SERVER BUSY."

You guessed it: this week, we talk about the great SimCity snafu of 2013. The technical issues surrounding the game are fairly well documented, but they raise a variety of broader questions: What does the future look like for single player games? Is the line between design flaw and technical issue getting blurry? Should a game review be amended if the game itself changes? All this (plus some zombie-related speculation) on this week's podcast. As always, feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- "Requiring Online for Single Player," by Raph Koster
- "Why this isn't a one-star SimCity review," by Tom Chick
- "SimCity Review: Engineering Addiction," by Russ Pits, via Polygon
- Runtime: 34 min 24 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Returning to Journey

Journey was released approximately one year ago and, to celebrate the occasion, I joined some folks in replaying the game last weekend.

I've already written and spoken more thousands of words about this game, but I always manage to come away with fresh perspectives after every playthrough. Even after a year, Journey remains one of the most impressive games I've ever played. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind as I watched the credits once again:

Seeing people min/maxing Journey weird.

Even a year after its release, I managed to come across numerous companions on my adventure. A few of these people had clearly played the game before, as they quickly found the hidden runes and obscure murals in each level. One person in particular would dash through the levels as fast as possible, collecting the runes and opening the gates to the next area as if she/he were being chased.

It strikes me that I didn't see such behavior when I played Journey for the first few times last year, as people were still strangers to the desert. It actually made for a somewhat stressful dynamic, as I was much more apt to wander around the levels while my partner was all business.

The drop-in, drop-out multiplayer is extremely elegant.

Without any obvious loading, server messages, or invites, meeting and subsequently parting with people feels organic. It also rewards you for paying attention to your companion, since you can only tell the difference between partners via visual and behavioral cues. I hope future, passively-online games like Bungie's upcoming Destiny are taking note.

The music is (still) amazing.

The various recurring motifs and themes are almost like another character. I made a point to pay close attention to the way the music cues and loops, as it always seems to reach a crescendo right when something dramatic is happening. The more I listen, the more I start to view it the music as akin to level design, it has a huge impact on framing the in-game world and the overall experience.

Journey is a triumph of restraint.

It's hard to find any extraneous material in the game. Besides the initial onscreen prompts that teach you movement basics, all communication with the player happens without menus, voice overs, or tutorials. There aren't any wacky side quests or score chases. Every moment of the game feels meticulously refined.

I dilly-dallied and still completed my journey in under two hours. Even so, the narrative ride offers a better sense of discovery, hardship, and eventual triumph than most 50-hour open world games I've played. You can tell a story about a difficult quest without any grinding.

The sand surfing through the ruined city and the final ascent to the mountain are some of the best moments in video games.

Not much else to say here except that I imagine they will continue to be stand out moments far many years to come.

If anyone else revisited Journey last week, I'd be interested to hear your impressions. And if you missed it, don't worry: I'm planning on making one more run this weekend. If come across a traveller in a white robe, it just might be me!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Capturing the Next Generation

This week at PopMatters, I write about the PS4's most exciting feature: its 8 gigabytes of RAM! Just kidding; it's the share button.

The share button and the suite of social features surrounding it tap into some of my favorite philosophical aspects of the video game industry. It's definitely an attempt by Sony to ensnare people in their ecosystem, but it also has the potential to empower players. The concept of working in marketing or public relations in an environment where anybody can quickly and easily stream and share their first-hand experiences of a game is terrifying. How do you stay "on message" if said message can be overwhelmed by a title wave of grassroots opinions?

Additionally, the share button has the potential to drastically impact historical and preservation efforts. I'm sure the technology won't be ideal and it's bound to be disorganized, but even this imperfect solution is bound to provide exponentially more historical documentation than we've ever had. Streaming is currently a pretty time and resource intensive process. The idea that it could be built into the very hardware of a device means huge numbers of people who would otherwise never actively contribute to posterity will now have a voice. Assuming the videos can be exported to a third-party platform like YouTube, we'll have a record of our games, how we played them, and what that looked like in the context of when they were released. Games will be patched and eventually forgotten, but at least we have the potential to capture specific moments in time.

Of course, all this assumes Sony (and Microsoft) actually pull this off without getting bogged down in technical issues or a desire to enforce a prohibitively closed ecosystem. I doubt it will be perfect (no console maker has a great track record when it comes to smart software decisions), but I have to believe that this is a step in the right direction.

And now, in the spirit of the post, here's a video of me doing dumb stuff in Far Cry 3:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

EXP Podcast #214: Heavy Rain and Unreliably Narrators

Oh David Cage, will you always be a source of contention and fascinating design discussions? If my tea leaves tell me anything, it's that the creative mind behind Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls will always be stirring the pot, trying to craft something for the games industry we have never seen before. It might taste terrible, but at least it fuels some interesting conversations.

This week on the EXP Podcast, inspired by an excellent article by Gavin Craig, Scott and I revisit Heavy Rain and explore the idea of the unreliable narrator. We touch upon several games in our chat, including our podcast favorite (can you guess what it is?). If you have examples of unreliable narrators in games, share them with us in the comments below and let us know how you felt they pulled off the difficult feat. Also, be sure to check out Craig's original article in the show notes as well as the "scene in question" below.

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- Runtime: 36 min 48 sec
-  "(Not) Seeing Is (Not) Believing", by Gavin Craig via Bit Creature (Note: Due to some website hijinks at Bit Creature, we falsely attributed the piece in the podcast. Our apologies. Just imagine you heard "Gavin Craig" instead of "James Hawkins".)
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Building Stories

Sample from Building Stories
I have something really special I want to talk about, but it has nothing to do with games, at least not at first glance. It's called Building Stories, and it's a graphic novel of sorts. By the looks of it, Building Stories seems more like a board game, a meaningful analogy all things considered. Open the box and you will find fourteen stories, or parts of a story. These include a gold-trimmed hard-cover reminiscent of children's books, a huge over-sized newspaper-like comic, a large board-game-like story, stretched pamphlets, short-stories, and more. For those with any interest in reader-driven storytelling (ie., anyone who plays games), this is a work you must experience for yourself.

Written and drawn by the brilliant Chris Ware, Building Stories explores themes of loneliness, depression, regret, and expectations with vivid coloring and gorgeous illustrations that often appear architectural in nature. Many of the pieces read like infographics, plotting the life moments of a failed art-students and those around her though the author, and the characters themselves, were trying to make sense of life unfulfilled.

Interactivity, participatory storytelling, is at the heart of Building Stories. Reading the graphic novel is a form of collaboration, as it asks players you to plot your own path on the journey. The contents can be read in any order, and therefor events take place at different points in time. Regardless, all of the events begin to make some sense in relation to each other. You may meet the upstairs landlady of the protagonist before you meet her daughter, depending on where you begin. Alternatively, you may enter the story through a Branford the Bee, a tragic insect that buzzes through the story here and there, following his own arc through the narrative. The set of stories also includes a couple double-sided pamphlets that can be read one way or the other, looping back around to tell a different but thematically consistent story of troubled life.

Beyond the very structure of the work, the layout of illustrations demand participation. Ware often draws you through the panels with arrows and signs, guiding you through the experience. Sometimes these paths diverge, two arrows may branch off into their own moments in time, and you have to choose your own path accordingly. At other times, Ware abandons you to find your own way, offering single
Do not mistake Build Stories for an "artsy" jumble of haphazardly put-together comic strips. Like a well designed game, this is a carefully constructed experience, it just demands your participation. When everything is read, things make sense, or rather, you make sense of things as best you can. The work captures the almost terrifying process of understanding your life in relation to singular places in time, past moments that collectively make up your life. The pieces are inseparable from the whole.

Building Stories contents from Global Panorama
In a digital age, making your way through user-driven and tactile experience is immensely rewarding. Reading Building Stories actually reminds me of playing Dear Esther, a game whose narrative must also be scrapped together by players combining narrative voice-over and environmental clues. Both experiences, if you let them, are also deeply moving.

If I haven't sold you on the "book" yet, maybe the many accolades Ware has earned can sway you. Building Stories is the winner of the Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Graphic Novel, Publishers Weekly's Best Book of the Year, Entertainment Weekly's Best Fiction of 2012, Boing Boing's Best Graphic Novel of the Year, among others, and appeared in several Top 10 Books of 2012 lists. Those gamers interested in interactive and spatial storytelling will find comfort in exploring the powerful (and deeply depressing) work.

One last piece of neat information regarding Building Story that you may find intriguing, the back of the box offers several "appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within th walls of an average well-appointed home."