Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monaco and Planning for Failure

"I have two smoke grenades. I can make it. I think I can make it. Alright, those guards have machine guns, I probably can't make it. I'll try it anyway."

This type of illogical step into chaos completes a wonderfully satisfying loop in Monaco, the recently released  top-down heist game. It combines minute planning and stealth with frantic efforts to manage failure. Of course these sensations are common in stealth games. When spotted, a hurried attempt to escape and duck into the shadows can be a rewarding experience, or painfully frustrating depending on the player or the game.  Monaco does something else interesting however, it rewards planned failure.

For the most part, I hate planning for the worst-case scenario in games. Buying an item in an RPG for a potential disaster, while smart, always felt backwards to me. If I plan to win, then ideally I will never put myself in worst-case scenarios at all. My execution should be perfect, settling for something less than perfect still feels like failure.

But then I find two guards between myself and a locked safe. Instead of planning an elaborate plot to lure away one of the guards and flank the other, I start planning for failure. I can dash in, throw a smoke grenade, open the safe, run up through the alarm system, climb the catwalk into the vault, make another mad grab for money while the guards are distracted. It's always been my personal dream to give chase to armed guards while carrying loads of cash.

I want to praise Monaco's incredibly compelling loop of planning and failure specifically because so few games can manage the transition so smoothly. For the most part, stealth games transition players from stealth, to chaos, to a reset. Getting away might be fun, but the end goal is another attempt at the same objective with the same context. It is far more rare for a moment of failure to be turned into a dramatic opportunity for success. More than any other aspect of Monaco, its ability to blur the lines between a chaos and planning captures the thrilling hijinks of the best heist films.

Now when another player joins the caper, the ability to plan and adapt to failure is even more electrifying. If I have a partner to revive me or benefit from my mistakes, I completely abandon my normal behavior and blindly, madly, and with a grin, kick the hornets nest and revel in chaos and failure.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

EXP Podcast #221: Co-op Mode Revisited

Image from Giant Bomb
This week's podcast was inspired by Katie, an intrepid reader who recently left a comment on something Jorge wrote way back in 2008 (talk about a deep cut!). Jorge's post came at the beginning of this generation's co-op boom and Katie's response provides a good starting point to discuss the ways in which the trend has affected the way we play games. How have different styles of collaborative gameplay distinguished themselves from one another? What happens to in-game storytelling when another player is along for the ride? Is the co-op trend a fad and how will it change in the coming years? We touch on all these topics and look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

- 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:

- "Coop Mode," by Jorge Albor, via Experience Points (you may have heard of it)
- Runtime: 32 min 16 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

An Omnidirectional Step Towards the Holodeck

If you're reading this site, it's likely that you've already seen this: the Omni multidirectional treadmill and the Oculus Rift VR headset have been combined to create a gaming setup that looks as tiring as it does ridiculous.

Clearly we're still a long ways off from the type of virtual reality experience we all dreamed of in the 1990s, but watching the video prompted me to think about the ways that current games, even the most "realistic" ones, abstract the types of real-world systems they simulate.

1.  When you're running, it's hard to pay attention to anything other than what is right in front of you.

The player moves a pretty fast clip and it's especially impressive to see the treadmill keep up with him.  However, he generally moves from point to point in short, linear bursts.  In other words, it's the way you would run if your movement and your viewpoint were more dependant on each other.  It's harder to keep your head steady when you're sprinting, which makes the weird run-strafing and constant mouse-looking that accompanies most FPS games much harder to pull off.

2.  Moving while aiming is also hard.

This is related to the first point, but notice how how the player stops almost every time he needs to aim a shot.  Even the most photorealistic shooters have players running and gunning, as it is usually fairly easy to remain accurate on the go.  It reminded me of playing Receiver, since simply lining your shot was a difficult challenge.

3.  Almost all video games obscure the "cost" of actions like jumping, crouching, or diving.

By cost, I mean the physical toll that extreme body movements take on your health.  Again, it's easy to simply acclimate to a game's abstractions.  Seeing military dude dive to a prone position down a flight of steps from a full sprint and then get up one second later no worse for wear is easy to write off when it happens repeatedly and when there is no mechanical consequence.  Seeing someone's physical movements mapped so directly onto their in-game avatar makes me think about the possibilities for games to explore take a more limited, but more costly, approach to movement.

4.  If this stuff takes off, I hope we called getting addicted to it "Barclay's Syndrome."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Survival as Facade in 'Tomb Raider'

Image from PopMatters
This week on PopMatters, I expand on the theme of survival in Tomb Raider. It's something Jorge and I talked a little bit about in this week's podcast, but it continued to stick with me long after finishing the game.

I may have come off as a little extreme, so let me clarify: I don't think every game needs to be a roguelike. Not every game needs to be Minecraft. Gameplay abstractions are a necessity, otherwise it would be like QWOP every time we tried to make Lara jump.

However, I do think a game like Tomb Raider does itself a disservice by leaning so heavily on its plot and aesthetics to communicate its themes. The environmental detail, character animation, and voice acting are outstanding, but the themes of danger and desperation are blunted after the cutscenes end. Lara and company say they have to worry about hunger, the weather, and injuries, but none of these things (aside from one instance where your control of Lara is briefly compromised by an injury that is magically solved by the next cutscene) actually impact the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Accepting Tomb Raider as a survival story requires heavy buy-in to what the game tells and shows you, as what you'll feel will be something different. There's very little penalty for abandoning the hunting mechanic. I probably killed fewer than ten animals and still managed to nearly max out all the weapons and abilities. Unexpected injuries are nonexistent and the penalty for trying an ill-conceived jump is negligible, the major penalty being the gruesome death animations that get less shocking each time they're repeated. BioShock Infinite's leniency is harsh by comparison. There aren't any heavy emotional or social choices to make amongst Lara's crew. Everything plays out in a preordained way.

Again, it's not that there isn't a place for more scripted, plot driven game experiences, it's just that these incongruities are just going to get more apparent as time goes on. This new Tomb Raider was billed as having reinvented Lara as a grittier, more grounded character. There is some truth to this, especially when it comes to the story, dialogue, and visual effects. But when it comes to picking up the controller, the pressure of survival melts away, leaving an experience that is actually not that far removed from the days when Lara would perform standing backflips while shooting tigers in the face.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

EXP Podcast #220: Tomb Raider Debrief

Tomb Raider cover art
Scott and I have ventured deep into Yamatai's hidden tomb and returned with a treasure trove of insight into the exciting Lara Croft reboot from Crystal Dynamics. After a painfully long, and troublesome, hype cycle, we can at last return from the island and share our thoughts on the game. Does this re-imagining of this pop-culture heroine breathe new life into the old franchise? Are quick time events back in style? Why does everyone on this island keep a diary? Join us while we discuss these questions and more! Be sure to hop into the comments below with your own thoughts on the game!

- 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: 49 min 55 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Are You Offended?

So I finished Guacamelee! and I think I am supposed to feel offended.

- - -

I remember being told I was a bad Mexican. To some of the white friends I hung out with, I was one of them. Once someone told me that because I played video games, read science fiction, and spoke with no accent, that I was whiter than they were. Now that was weird. Maybe I should have worn a sombrero or poncho around campus. Maybe then I would have been a Mexicano auténtico. To my extended family, my choppy spanish and awkward adolescence was a sign of my absolute assimilation into a destructive other.

Claims to authenticity are poisonous. Within every mass, big or small, there are minorities and outliers. Yes, it can be important for minority communities to earn recognition as a whole, but efforts to homogenize are both futile and destructive. Those pushed out or excluded from communities for failing to adhere to behavior norms one way or another (this can include you too, even if you don’t know it), may have a hard time understanding what pieces of culture they can or cannot include in their personal identity.

I grew up here in California and consider myself culturally Mexican and Chicano, but what this means is far more vague. I have created a self-identity that incorporates aspects of the already voluminous “Mexican culture”, just as you have undoubtedly formed an identity out of the diverse cultural influences you grew up around. A Mayan calendar hangs on my wall opposite a poster depicting the cover of Le Petit Prince (a french children’s novel everyone should read). I am multitudinous.

Which brings me back to Guacamelee!, a metroidvania style platformer on PSN that offers a damn fun adventure with a few neat tweaks to the formula. The game is heavily inspired by Mexican popular mythos and iconography. Mariachi music plays in the background, chickens roam about the town, the game’s skeletal dimension looks like a Dia de los Muertos diorama, and the protagonist is a brawny mask-wearing Luchador. Without a doubt, Guacamelee! is charming.

Yet while I enjoyed the game, I kept getting asked if I found the game offensive. Was I mad at the developers for creating a game set in a cultural landscape that, to the majority of the team, was foreign? Had they exploited my culture?

Honestly, I don’t know. The concept of cultural ownership is strange to me. As far as I see it, the music of Mexico belongs to the world, as all music does. The sights, sounds, and festivities of the small pueblito where my family is from means something special to me. But if I took you there, drove you through farmland and forest, and walked you into the old stone church at the center of town or showed you the worn down arcade cabinet I played obsessively during my stays there, I believe you would fall in love. Culture is unique in that its shareable yet simultaneously subjective.

With that in mind, the question is one of care. Does Guacamelee! celebrate or ridicule? When it comes to humor, it can actually be hard to tell. Juan Aguacate, the main character, has a comically terrible name (yes, aguacate means Avocado). His sidekick, Tostada, is no better. It’s tongue in cheek humor though, and the game is full of it. Many of the jokes, unless you are familiar with Spanish or even Mexican lore will be lost on you. Carlos Calaca, the undead villain, also has a pun name (Calaca means skeleton, mostly associated with figurines). The goat man, Huay Chivo, is a mythical beast in Mexican lore.

For the most part, these references are worth a chuckle. On one hand, this is simple humor. Some characters are named after food, like the Hamburgler. It can make you smile, and that’s alright. On the other hand, some of the jokes seem to target Americans who find humor in Mexican caricatures with names from a Taco Bell order. In California at least, a common stereotype associates Mexican with food (a stereotype born of socio-economic conditions), which some may see mirrored in Guacamelee!'s many puns.

X’tabay is a particularly strange inclusion in the game. The female villain, temporary lover to Calaca, is the first boss players face in the game. The foundational lore of X’tabay is rooted in the story of a succubus-like goddess or demon. While this mythology is particularly old, the figure of a traitorous and lustful woman has a long and sordid history in Mexican culture. Most notably, Malinche, a real woman who was blamed for many years for ultimate conquest of Mexico, remains a powerful icon that carries with it X’tabay’s connotations of sexism in Mexican culture. The cultural significance of Malinche is immense and deeply contested. Not surprisingly, Malinchista is still used as an insult against those who stray too far from Mexican culture.

So here I am, a Malinchista, playing a game made in Canada, by a team mostly comprised of Canadians, laughing at a farcical luchador who gets his powers from a talking goat. I am certainly not against the idea of culturally diverse teams designing experiences that celebrate cultures not necessarily or entirely their own. Still, the game’s treatment of women, particularly considering gender politics in Mexican culture, I find more troubling.

Am I offended? I don’t know. That’s the wrong question to ask. Reactions to cultural portrayals are deeply personal. We are better off asking what does the game do right? What does the game do wrong? And is the game made with care?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Change and Literacy in League of Legends

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Change and Literacy in League of Legends

In a roundabout way, this article is about two things: my continued fascination with the League of Legends community and my strong believe in the power of transparent game design. If you spend any time on League forums or fan sites, you will find a mind boggling amount of creativity. You'll also find heated arguments about the most esoteric and minute pieces of design, often completely fictionalized.

I have seen several threads in which players argued about the relatively power of one champion or another. But these aren't just "which Sonic character do you like better" scenarios. Fans will start calculating damage output per second based on common item builds. They will create hypothetical situations in which one character's utility trounces another. They will even imagine tweaks to each character that would make them stronger or weaker accordingly. For many League of Legends players, fandom is inseparable from game design.

The hours players spend analyzing new characters is impressive. Each new champion is dissected and criticized, and the same goes for items in the game. I've also seen numerous players offer design tweaks for items, some that are rarely used, or even create their own. They might not always be intelligent design decisions, but the act of participating creatively with the work is undoubtedly educational.

Both Riot's commitment to clarity in design and open communication with their players facilitate game literacy among their players. Their regular videos that breakdown their reasons behind design changes are amazing and all too rare in the industry. Even when they fail in creating a balanced and well constructed character, they often describe why their initial design didn't match their vision. Their level of honesty is enviable and not only makes for a better community, it makes for a smarter player base.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EXP Podcast #219: Violence, Art, and Representative Games

This podcast started with a single question I posed to Jorge: "If someone who has never played games came to you and asked you to show them what video games are all about, what would you show them?" It's a big question, one that may well be impossible to fully tackle, but it's something that has come up in the wake of BioShock Infinite and the discussion surrounding its violent imagery. Does the game undercut the impact of some of its themes with unnecessarily explicit or abundant scenes of violence? Is it a problem that one of the premiere examples of artistic and narrative achievement in the medium falls back on the familiar run-and-gun scenario? A growing number of folks are saying "yes" to these questions. This week, we talk about what types of games encapsulate the medium, and how we introduce them to the uninitiated.

- 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: 35 min 19 sec
- "BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It's A Real Shame," by Kirk Hamilton, via
- "Opinion: Violence limits BioShock Infinite's audience — my wife included," by Chris Plante, via Polygon
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The FitBit Game

Image from Giant Bomb
So far, I've done a pretty good job staying out of the whole "gamification" movement. I'm not as vocal an opponent as Ian Bogost, but the proliferation of point systems, achievement boards, and oh-so-many badges has been unsettling to see. There so much room to go wrong: gamification is often simply marketing in disguise. It can fool you into thinking that you're interacting with game mechanics, when all you're really doing is tallying arbitrary points. Even worse, some research suggests that external rewards can (counterintuitively) decrease the pleasure you feel in something you used to find fulfilling. So why then have I purchased a FitBit?

There are a few reasons (i.e., justifications). I'm working a lot these days, and spending a little cash on something that will track just how active I am will hopefully be a good motivator to stay off the couch in the evening. There are also a lot of people at my work with the little devices, and being part of a group keeps me accountable. Last winter, we even had a contest between teams to see who could log the most steps. Of course, all these steps take us quite close the land of gamification, which is a place I don't usually like to go.
That being said, I do like data, something that the FitBit provides in abundance. It's something that I think often gets conflated with gamification, but quantification doesn't necessarilty require competition. I wonder if simply seeing a history of action and behavior is as a good a motivator as getting a pseudo reward based on an arbitrary goal. The question then becomes is this:

More motivational than this:

We'll see, as this is probably the deepest I've ever ventured into this sort of metrics tracking and badge hunting. I figure it's a way to stay intellectually honest; if I'm going to continue to criticize gamification, I might as well get some first hand experience. After all, Jorge and I did delve into Facebook games and emerge with greater insight. Additionally, if I happen to lower my blood pressure a little bit in the process, how bad can it be.

One thing's for sure: I'm a damn efficient sleeper.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Strong Pictures and Subtle Themes in 'BioShock Infinite'

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I go on a short photographic journey through BioShock Infinite.

The column is partly an expansion of the discussion Jorge and I had on this week's podcast. The broad point is that Infinite isn't afraid to deal with very heavy themes, but it also doesn't explicitly lecture the player about the significance of the imagery that's on screen. The result is a game that deals explicitly and confidently with subjects that most games never touch. Infinite goes beyond simply acknowledging that racisim, sexism, and religious zealotry exist and that those things are dangerous; it shows how those forces can structure a society by becoming daily realities that reinforce the power of those who benefit from them.

All this is done through imagery and overheard conversations, so it's up to the player to use their brain for something besides aiming and shooting. It's an approach that respects the player's time, level of engagement, and intellect. It's also an approach that is all too rare these days.

I've been wracking my brain over the last week trying to come up with other games that deal frankly with traditionally taboo subjects like racism and menstruation. There's stuff in Infinite that is even rare in the independent scene, so it's astounding that it shows up in one of the most publicized games of the past few years. Seeing this material in a game is great, especially when it's such a mainstream one. Hopefully it emboldens designers and publishers to take more thematic risks and to let strong images stand on their own.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

EXP Podcast #218: BioShock Infinite Debrief

Almost six years after BioShock took the world by storm and forever changed our relationship to video games, the esteemed Ken Levine is back with another work of fantastical and historical fiction. At last, after several delays, BioShock Infinite is in our hands. Columbia might be in the sky, but is the story grounded? Are the systems tight? Does any of this even make sense? Join us this week as Scott and I mine the richness that is BioShock Infinite.

As we always promise with debriefs, we will give you plenty of notice before we spoil anything, so feel free to jump in, whether or not you have played the game. When you have finally seen an end to the story though, be sure to come back and leave your thoughts on the game in the comments below (and when you do, spoiler warning tags are always appreciated.

- 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: 66 mins 32 secs
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Praising Complexity in Film and Games

Like most young kids who grew up in the nineties, I fell in love with Jurassic Park. I watched that movie at least four times in the theaters, at least a dozen times since. My favorite films, not all of them with dinosaurs, I still watch again and again. Some of the best films have a richness and depth that reward multiple viewings. It is a horrendous shame games are so rarely played more than once, or even to completion.

I recently watched Room 237, a strange and fascinating documentary entirely about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. If you haven't seen The Shining, it is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a write who takes a job at a hotel, goes insane, and tries to murder his family. It is a brilliant piece of horror to be sure, but Room 237 offers several alternative readings of the film. The documentary is broken up into nine segments featuring film enthusiasts/conspiracy theorists discussing the many perceptions of The Shining. One  interviewee believes the film is about the genocide of American Indians, another thinks it is really about the holocaust, yet another genuinely believes the film is Kubrick subtly confessing that he faked the first moon landing.

At first, these theories seem outlandish. Did Kubrick really place a stack of papers in front of a character to make it look like he had an erection? I don't know. But after awhile, the ideas add up. Scenes are played back over and over, with different background information and oddities highlighted each time. Impossible rooms appear obvious after multiple viewings, along with other absurdities, like disappearing furniture. In scene, if you can quick enough to catch it, you can see Jack, the film's protagonist, reading an issue of Play Girl in the hotel lobby.

Honestly, much of the film's oddities can be attributed to happenstance or simple continuity errors, but it is so much fun to dig into the stories. Take Shane Carruth's Primer as another example. It's a time travel film that, to my absolutely delight, does time travel right. The complexities of the film are deep and it keeps you thinking about, talking about it, and theorizing well after you've seen the film. Speaking of which, his next film, Upstream Color promises to be every bit as engaging.

Of course we might not have a "Stanley Kubrick of games" to make something as repeatedly fascinating and intricate as The Shining. Indeed, it is hard enough in the industry for auteurs to have as much command over their product as Kubrick did. Indie developers lead the charge in this regard, but are often constrained by budget and must maintain a limited scope.

This is all, of course, a roundabout way of praising BioShock Infinite, which comes pretty darn close to achieving a daringly rich game world akin to The Shining. The themes are rich, drenched in both pop-culture and American history. The game is about memories, mythologies, regret, racism, capitalism, religion, and storytelling in both games and within our own minds. It is an astounding work of fiction. While the mechanics do not resonate as much with the deeper themes of the story, I do believe Infinite reveals a great deal of complexity that could reward multiple playthroughs. Like the first BioShock, it is a game that will be remembered. Already, players are digging deep into the events of the game and its predecessors, looking for clues. It's just a shame it takes so damn long to play over again.

It's not just Infinite that aims to create depth in its storytelling. I might include Mass Effect into the bunch (remember the indoctrination theory?) as well as Dark Souls, which has all sorts of mechanical features that must be plumbed for meaning but hide an incredible amount of richness. These games offer something few others can: an world so rich as to lose ourselves conjecture and curiosity.