Friday, January 30, 2009

Using Tropes as Tools in Bioshock

I recently joined the year 2007 and finally played through BioShock. I had been looking forward to playing the game because it was one of those special titles that garnered critical acclaim while also sparking critical analysis. While the argument over BioShock's ludonarrative dissonance is well worn, it did not move me in any particular way. Instead, I think the game's most important achievement is its use of tackling common video game tropes with its narrative.

Although it employs some of the biggest video game cliches, BioShock dispatches them uniquely and effectively. By using its narrative to co-opt gameplay tropes, BioShock lessens their dissonant effects.

While the necessity of this warning is currently being debated, I still think I should warn folks that there will be major plot spoilers in this post.

Video games succeed as entertainment and art because players are willing to suspend their disbelief. If a player questioned any given game character's counter-intuitive actions, the number of logical holes to fall through would render most games unplayable. Why would the knight in Ironsword eat strange meat that he found in a treasure box? How can Faith fall fifty stories to her doom, and then be revived instantly for another go? How does what's-her-face from Heavenly Sword survive in battle wearing a piece from the slave-Leia collection?

BioShock has a multitude of similarly ridiculous absurdities. Instead of spurning them or finding new gameplay mechanics in which to avoid them, the game's narrative creates a universe in which the aforementioned absurdities make sense. Here are a few big examples that jumped out at me:

The Vita Chamber

The Trope: The vita chambers serve as BioShock's continue and spawning system. Games traditionally implement some kind of system to dole out punishment while also showing the player mercy if they fail. After all, most games would not work narrotologically nor mechanically if the player had to start all the way over every time they "died."

The Narrative Solution: The vita chambers are not continue screens, they are cloning cylinders. In actuality, every time the player dies, a new protagonist is being created. This sidesteps the dissonance of a "game over" screen and also explains why enemies retain their damage and ammo remains spent after the player dies. The conventional "continue" system fits with Rapture's logic.

The Splicers

The Trope: Psychos enemies wearing strange costumes are nothing new.

The Narrative Solution: The story is set in a world where most of the people are essentially drug junkies. Because of their addiction, they spiral into madness while also being manipulated byFontaine. The masks make them especially creepy while staying logical within the game's story: Fontaine released an army of Splicers during a new Year's Eve masquerade ball. If one can suspend disbelief enough to believe a city could be built underwater, drug addiction and class warfare are hardly logical leaps.

Jack's Behavior

The Trope: Players often force a game's main character to take preposterous actions. However, neither the player nor NPCs blink when the protagonist ingests medicine found on the floor, becomes proficient with military grade weapons, and unquestioningly follows the advice of random townspeople.

The Narrative Solution: Jack's genetic modification and behavioral conditioning not only explain his malleability, but also awaken the player to their own complaisant attitude. Although I saw Atlus ' betrayal coming a mile away, I found the back-story behind his ability to control Jack highly believable in the context of the story. More importantly, it demonstrated to me how much faith I put in the information NPCs provide me, as well as the ludicrous behavior I act out while controlling a virtual character.

My first thought when I saw Jack inject his initial vial of Eve was "Hmmm...that can't be sanitary....Well, whatever; it's a video game." I had been conditioned accept the absurdity in a game and was prepared to simply accept that Jack's motivations and my actions were dissonant with reality. BioShock's story demonstrates that dissonance can be overcome even when employing gameplay and story elements that have been historically beholden to the suspension of disbelief.

While it is laudable to engineer new ways of playing games to prevent the reliance on stale tropes, BioShock stands as an example of how a story can revitalize and utilize common game conventions. By taking care to construct a narrative with consistent logic, BioShock creatively wields ancient cliches as tools in the creation of an immersive experience.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

EXP Podcast #10: The Art of Being Sony

Post-recording note: We chose this story and recorded the podcast before we heard some unfortunate news. It truly speaks to our economy's sad state of affairs when talented people who produce thoughtful, entertaining writing are let go. Ben, we hope to see you on the other side of the tunnel soon!

This week, we flirt with the fires of console fanboyism to talk about the state of the Playstation 3. We were inspired by Ben Fritz's opinion piece in which he contemplated whether the PS3 had an "artsy" image that was hurting its sales. We range from a discussion on the console's physical appearance to its popular perception and corporate philosophy. "Artsy" is a vague term to be sure, so everything we say is definitely open for discussion, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts as well. Check out the show notes for the article that spurred the discussion, along with a bonus link to a window into the weird and wacky world that is Kaz Hirai's mind!

Some discussion starters:

-Do you get some kind of "vibe" from specific gaming platforms? If so, how does this affect your playing habits?
-How big of a role does marketing play when it comes to game sales?
-To what forces do you attribute Sony's reversal of fortune in the console market?

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: 27 min 53 sec
-Ben Fritz's article: "Is Sony too artsy for its own good?"
-Some Kaz Hirai gems
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 26, 2009

Embedded Games: Cloud Atlas

This post is my contribution for this month's Round Table discussion in which Corvus Elrod asks us what our favorite piece of literature would look like if it had been created as a game first. I love this topic and have enjoyed seeing other writers tackle some amazing literary works, including Blood Meridian, House of Leaves, and Pride and Prejudice. I recommend you check out the other participants.

". . . I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far back b'fore the Fall, yay, glimpsed from a gallopin' horse in a hurrycane, but I cudn't describe 'em 'cos there ain't the words no more but well I mem'ry that dark Kolekole girl with her tribe's tattoo, yay, she was a saplin' bendin' an' I was that hurrycane, I blowed her she bent, I blowed harder she bent harder an' closer, then I was Crow's wings beatin' an' she was the flames lickin' an' when the Kolekole saplin' wrapped her willowy fingers around my neck, her eyes was quartzin' and she murmed in my ear, Yay, I will, again, an' yay, we will, again." - Cloud Atlas

It took me quite a long time to decide which book I would dare to reimagine as a game. I chose Cloud Atlas in part because I hope I can bring new readers to an impressive piece of fiction. I also picked Cloud Atlas know how difficult it would be, so forgive me ahead of time if the game I am about to describe doesn't sound like fun. I'm not entirely sure it is supposed to be.

The Could Atlas game embeds six games into one, beginning with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The player controls the titular protagonist in a third-person perspective through a free-roaming environment. This game segment is exploratory in nature, with only a few objectives for the player to complete. As the protagonist explores an isolated and remote colony island in the 1850s, sketching the people, places, and events, a narrative slowly takes shape of subjugation, desperation, and an ignorant protagonist.

This story ends abruptly during a sketch, panning out to reveal a young man rummaging through a sketch book in a room clearly not his own. The player takes control of this protagonist, revealed to be a poor composer living in 1931 Belgium. The player explores the narrative by interacting with artifacts in the home and NPCs, collecting information and experiences. These narrative artifacts take the form of musical notes to be fit into a puzzle game akin to Auditorium in which the player slowly builds, in pieces, a musical composition. As each portion of the song come together, a letter takes shape on the screen from the protagonist to a dear friend.

These letters segue into a new game in which the player controls Luisa Rey, an acquaintance of the letters' recipient. This segment is a stealth action mystery game involving corporate greed, lies, and murder. Information must be gathered while avoiding the guards and ruffians whilst Luisa Rey narrates important elements of the story, slowly solving the mystery. This portion ends with climactic car chase, narrated by an old man.

Screen fades to old man reading aloud a manuscript. This man soon comes into conflict with over-the-top gangster types and finds himself imprisoned in a retirement home. The game becomes a point-and-click comedic adventure similar to Sam & Max. The player must gather tools and befriend crazy residents to create elaborate escape plans.

When the first escape plan is foiled, the camera pans out to reveal a young woman, Somni, playing the same videogame, at which point she is forcibly apprehended. What follows is an interrogation interspersed with flashbacks. The player has absolutely only minimal control over the character during flashbacks to her life as an android who slowly becomes self-aware in a futuristic, corporate controlled city. This interrogation is recorded in a small orb.

The screen cuts off mid-sentence and the orb is quickly passed between strangers. The player takes control of a young boy in a post-apocalyptic village. After meeting a representative of the last remnant of civilization, the village is raided and the player must survive bandits, rescue survivors, and explore the last remaining ruins of Somni's facility in a third-person platform style. The story ends around a fire where an old man recounts a tale of reincarnation and a messiah-like woman. Removing the orb from his pocket, he activates the recording device, a hologram of Somni appears and the interrogation continues.

At this point the game works its way out again, but each segment after Somni is informed by the previous. Flashbacks to the other game segments reveal insights into solving the current mystery or puzzle and connections are drawn between the protagonists in each. Credits roll as the player concludes Ewing's sketchbook and the player/narrative created composition plays to the backdrop of game images.

Like a Russian matrioshka doll, the six stories that make up Cloud Atlas are embedded within each other. The game spirals inward through time to a single narrative and works its way back out again, finishing each novella along the way. Each segment differs dramatically in style and format. Though they can all stand independently, a tale of humanity's propensity for malevolence matched only by its persistent reincarnation of magnanimity and perseverance, of sacrifice in the face of fear and an unknown future, weaves itself eloquently through the entire experience.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Killing Morality: Playing Blood Meridian

This month's Round Table topic, combined with our recent discussion on violence in games, has me thinking about an alternate reality in which Cormac McCarthy's, Blood Meridian, was a video game. McCarthy's novel is one of my favorite pieces of literature. It melds poetry, philosophy, and history to create something that is both beautiful and terrifying. The book explores the nature of humanity, and the role violence plays in defining existence. I imagine it could have first been released as a game, but would people dare play it? The story's grim analysis of human nature would be a shock to players, as it is anathema to how most games handle morality and choice.

The default moral position of most games is "good." Whether it is saving the kidnapped princess, defeating the evil space empire, or recovering a long lost artifact, the protagonist of the game, along with their ultimate objective, is most often perceived as based in morality. Samus kill aliens and Mario stomps goombas, but they are excused because their actions are altruistic. In games like Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Bioshock , the player is presented with choices, but these choices tend to stick to a binary construction of morality in which definite "good" and "bad" choices exist.

In Blood Meridian, morality is killed. The story is set in the mid-nineteenth century United States and follows a gang of filibusters who indiscriminately kill everything they come in contact with. The closest thing it has to a protagonist is The Kid, a nameless young man whose single-minded focus on surviving in a harsh world sees him act as both a savior and a killer. The closest thing to an antagonist is Judge Holden (referred to throughout the story as "the judge").

The judge is not so much a man as he is an unstoppable force. Eloquent in a multitude of languages, scientifically brilliant, and a master philosopher, he represents the embodiment of human knowledge. He uses this knowledge to spread destruction wherever he goes, and when the filibusters meet him, it seems almost as if he were waiting for them, ready to take them to a place where the only law is strength, and any struggle against this philosophy of kill or be killed is futile. The judge represents history and progress as a sequence of violent acts that create a world order.

At first blush, this does not seem to be outside the realm of possibility for video game. Examples of games in which killing is the method of advancing are plentiful. However, at the end of most games, the player is recognised as winning or losing, choosing the "good" path or the "bad" path, saving the world or facing another game over screen. A game faithful to the story of Blood Meridian would contain no such things, and would be challenge the way we think about the "point" of a game.

While pontificating on the nature of humanity, the judge proclaims:

"Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test...Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right," (McCarthy, 250).

This philosophy is borne out regularly in the book, and I think it is one that could easily be conveyed in a video game. It would take a brave developer to try this, though.

The game would have to ditch the notion of "rewards." In a world where violence is a means and an end, there is no reward beyond staying alive. The player could not rely on any help fromNPCs , fellow players, or the environment. Violence would be the primary method of conducting business. Therefore, it would have to be meaningful: Buildings would need to stay destroyed and players would have to forgo magical health packs. Every altercation could result in a possible maiming that would effectively end the player's progress. We think of this as "unfair" or "hard," but in Blood Meridian, this is just life.

Perhaps the player would control the kid and journey through this hellish world, focused on defying the judge's commandments. Or, the player could take control of the judge and travel through history, inciting violence and brutality in order to form existence itself.

The game's most sinister aspect would be found in attempting to "beat" it. I could think only three possible ways the game would end:

1. The player, as the kid, would die.

2. The player, as the kid, would embrace the judge's logic, blasting past the platitude of "might makes right" and embracing his true message: Might is existence. The kid would then become the judge, and continue playing the game indefinitely, fated to eternally destroy life in order to define it.

3. The player, as the judge, would grow tired or complacent and succumb to the judge's logic, resulting in death.

I wonder what the ESRB would rate this game? Can an "Adults Only" rating be given out based on profoundly disturbing philosophical content?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

EXP Podcast #9: A Bloody Mess

Some of those smart minds over at the University of Rochester got together and published a little study for us to talk about this week. Those psychologists, tinkerers of the brain I call them, have learned gamers don't always need gore. The original article can be found in the show notes for your enjoyment. Your input on the subject is always appreciated, feel free to answer some of the questions we have for your below if you need some inspiration.

Some discussion starters:
- How often do you notice gore when playing a game?
- When is violence and gore excessive?
- Would you miss the gore if taken out of traditionally violent 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: 27mins 10sec
- The University of Rochester study.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 19, 2009

Modernizing Genre, Part Three

This post is the final entry of a three part series, Modernizing Genre. I highly recommend you read parts one and two before continuing on to this piece. Part one, The Bane of Genre, criticizes existing videogame genres as constricting and inaccurate. Part Two, In Defense of Genre, supports the idea that genres are empowering and essential. This week I hope to pick up the scraps and invigorate genre anew.

Redeeming Genre

Genre, in all mediums, is not without its flaws. Convention is too easily relied upon, stifling creativity. This is readily apparent in videogames when browsing the shelves at your local purveyor, each cookie-cutter shooter nearly indistinguishable from the others. The unique characteristics of the games that do stand out make their assigned genres vague and/or inapplicable.

Yet, abandoning genre altogether would be foolish. Genre can empower players and developers alike by providing them with the tools to create, understand, and explore videogame worlds that build upon themselves. A game that skirts, toys with, and reexamines genre can be a unique experience, pushing the medium to fascinating new places.

What are we left with? How is genre to proceed if it's to survive at all? To salvage genre, we must change how we understand and label videogames. Last week, Scott posted a fantastic critical examination of Okami and its use, and misuse, of genre, calling Okami a "Zelda game." Accordingly, videogame genre should embrace content based classification over mechanic based classification to remain relevant.

When I say content, I mostly refer to thematic and setting concerns. Science-Fiction, Fantasy, War, and Westerns all fall into this setting based taxonomy in both film and literature. Likewise, the sensations a work might try to elicit can describe a thematic based genre: Horror, Noir, and Comedy for example. While keeping in mind the differences between these genres, I agree with Thomas Apperly in stating "what is crucially important to video game genres is to be able to think of each individual game as belonging to several genres at once."

Besides Horror, another content based genre seems to be garnering gamer support. Say hello to Zen Gaming, the category Sony has attached to Thatgamecompany's latest title, Flower. What could be more calming than controlling a soft breeze through a field, blooming flowers, and collecting petals along the way? The music enhances a game that is designed to both sooth and entertain challenge hungry gamers.

It is easy enough for Zen Gaming to encompass other games as well. Flow, Thatgamecompany's previous release, could also fall into this category. The yoga exercises of Wii Fit could be Zen, along with PixelJunk Eden, Audiosurf, and the yet unreleased IGF entrant, Osmos. Most importantly, the Zen genre is descriptive not of a shared mechanic, but of a similar theme, which can be built upon, re-imagined, and enjoyed by players and developers.

A player can reasonably assess the type of experience a Zen game might offer, but many content based genres are not as descriptive in this regard. Consumer-minded technical classifications may retain their usefulness when applied as sub-genres. Sub-genres can also be content based, as is necessary to truly appreciate individual games as potentially belonging to multiple genres, but existing videogame genres - FPS, RPG, etc. - should only exist as sub-genres.

For example, Dead Space is first and foremost a Horror game. The futuristic setting and gravity altering mechanics places Science Fiction as its first sub-genre. Below this, Dead Space can be considered a shooter. These sub-genres need only be listed as necessary. In our reclassification of Dead Space, a unnecessarily long header might read "a shooter SciFi-Horror." The key word, Horror, should be the focal point as it encompasses the mood, design goals, and player expectations all in one.Not all existing genres, be they content or mechanic based, should be applied to videogames. Action, Adventure, RPG, or Strategy are not descriptive enough to be genres or sub-genres and should be scrapped entirely. Meanwhile, some mechanic based categories should remain in common use, particularly for games without much narrative content. Though the term "Fighter" may be too broad (many games include fighting), titles in this genre have many similarities in content and play.

The Puzzle genre can also be useful as the primary genre for games such as Tetris or Lumines, while also being sub-genre for narrative driven games like Braid or Portal. In these situations, content based classifications can be the sub-genre. Professor Layton, for example, is a Puzzle game first, a Mystery second.

These ideas are still infantile and sketchy at best. The application of a revised genre taxonomy also requires very subjective analysis of a game's content, but that is exactly the outcome I desire. Genre frames how we talk about, understand, analyze, and enjoy videogames. We should treat genre with the reverence and critical eye the medium deserves, but modernizing genre is not easy. If you have thoughts on the subject, ideas for new genres, or old genres you'd like to see buried, please let me know. It is exactly the conversation we should have.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Crutches and Swords: Thoughts on Genre and Okami

I have had a great time reading Jorge's recent discussion of genre and the conversations it has spurred. Jorge deftly exposes the failure of genre in one breadth while eloquently defending it in the next. I find myself being swayed in both directions, depending on which game I am thinking about. There is a particular game, however, that leaves me ambivalent as to whether genre is a positive force. This game is Okami.

Okami fits solidly into the action-adventure genre: the gameplay challenges are mix of combat, treasure hunts, and environmental puzzles. There is a modest upgrade status upgrade and monetary system. The overworld is sprinkled with hidden treasure chests, the map is is dotted with mini-game filled villages, and dungeons are used to move the story along.

I argue that the genre can be further specified by calling Okami a "Zelda" game. A raft of similarities position Okami squarely on the shoulders of everyone's favorite green-clad hero. Amaterasu shares Link's fondness for silence and penchant for small, impish travelling companions. Like Link, she has power over the sun, the moon, the wind, and small explosive devices. Link expands his health bar by collecting fractions of hearts, Amaterasu does so by collecting fractions of "sun stones" or some such nonsense. Both characters traverse dungeons in which they acquire a magical talisman that also happens to be the key to conquering that dungeon. I could go on, but suffice to say that Okami is firmly rooted in some very old genre conventions.

This has proven frustrating on numerous occasions. Combat is passable, but it is much simpler than Zelda, which makes the frequent fights a chore. Okami would be better served by a break with the genre's traditional combat mechanics; forsaking physical attacks in favor of more fully realized brush-stroke combat would have added to the game's originality. Amaterasu's silence leads to NPCs delivering long-winded soliloquies replete with painfully obvious plot exposition. Like Zelda, none of the characters speak a human language, and instead prattle on in a repetitive, cartoonish drone. Not only does the game feel long at times, it actually is long when measured in hours. I am about thirty hours in and, based on the story, I fully expect at least 5-10 more hours lies ahead of me.

At the same time, the game uses its length as a way of challenging established Zelda conventions. About ten hours in, a major false ending tricked me into thinking the game was over. I had just vanquished a particularly nasty boss, one that I thought was integral to the story, but to my surprise it lead to the unfolding of a larger narrative. Without the pre-conceived ideas over what constituted a "final boss," I would never had this pleasant surprise. Although Amaterasu does not talk, her translator Issun, taps into some the imagery of Link's Navi. As a sarcastic, often lecherous, reluctant hero, Issun serves to engage with the historically bland characters of Link's fairies. In fact, Issun is eventually revealed to be a full-fledged character who hails from an established society of minuscule artists. In comparison to the squeaky-clean dialogue of Zelda, Okami's numerous boob jokes show that the writers were willing to put a unique spin on the game.

Okami has a distinct personality, but it manifests itself in the settings, rather than the gameplay. Although the game may feel like Link walking around in a quasi-medieval Euro-centric, Okami's world looks like a magical amalgamation of Japanese folklore. The scant references I actually understand augment the game's vibrancy and individuality, something I would probably not notice as clearly if it did not feel like a familiar game. The juxtaposition of familiarity and novelty recalls the exploits of games who tried to do something similar, such as the Goemon series.

Is Okami ultimately served by established genres? The game is simultaneously bogged down by tradition, yet enhanced by its willingness to playfully engage with the tropes of its lineage. For Okami, genre is employed as an unnecessary crutch and wielded as a subtle blade. The problem is, the game does not know when to lean and when to swing. It exists as a monument to the sloth genre generates as well as the creativity it engenders.

Perhaps it is a good thing that genre exists in its current form, for it simultaneously provides historical grounding, artistic inspiration, and a sharp warning against relying too heavily on tradition.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

EXP Podcast #8: Patent Pending

This week, an intrepid Internet explorer happened upon some mysterious patents filed by Nintendo. The documents lay out a new system for delivering hints in a game, as well as a mode of play in which the player watches the game unfold on its own until they choose to join in. This raises numerous issues in regards to game difficulty, the accessibility of modern video games, and defining exactly what it even means to "play a game." As always, check out the show notes for links to the stories and references, and feel free to offer your speculations on how (or if) this patent will be utilized.

Some discussion starters:
- Do you think this system would create new gamers, or simply irritate current gamers?
- How much challenge do you like in a game? Does it depend on what kind of game it is, or is there a specific way of implementing challenge that is particularly appealing?
- How much interaction do we need with a game in order for it to still qualify as 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 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 mins 13 sec
- The Kotaku article describing Nintendo's patent
- Some developers comment on the news
- Corvus Elrod's excellent exploration of the definition of a "game"
- The Graveyard
is a videogame?
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 12, 2009

Modernizing Genre, Part Two

This post is part two of a three part series. In part one, The Bane of Genre, I criticized existing videogame genres as limiting and increasingly inaccurate. This week I offer a very different opinion on the utility and favorable traits of genre. I owe credit to Thomas Apperly, whose essay on Genre and game studies stimulated my own thoughts. I am also indebted to fellow Berkeley resident, and talented storyteller, Michael Chabon and his numerous essays in support of literary genre. I borrow many of his ideas, some of his words, and a lot of his fervor.

In Defense of Genre

The appeal of genre is natural: genre is comforting. It is a path well traveled, on which we've come to rely. The representatives of genre across mediums have embedded themselves into popular culture. As sources of entertainment and adventure, Doctor Who and Doctor Jones are as trustworthy as as the family physician (I recommend frequent visits to all three). To abandon genre entirely would be to strip players and developers of a map, far from the beaten path.

Most videogame genres describe how a game is played, not its content. The similarities within a given classification are not entirely useless, as they represent familiar territory to consumers. If a game is labeled as a Platformer for example, one can safely assume game progression involves maneuvering over terrain and the management of platform elements will likely be the source of most enjoyment. Though the average player may not be a fanatic, there is something to say for equipping consumers with even a rudimentary understanding of game mechanics and how these design choices shape the games they play.

Where gamers spend their money is important, and considering mechanics can make or break an experience, it may be beneficial to classify games around gameplay elements. Would a stranger to videogames be able to adequately assess their enjoyment of Asteroids by calling it a science fiction? What about equating Puzzle Quest primarily with its fantasy elements? Gameplay description may be the common denominator for creating an accurate prediction of player satisfaction.

Even genres describing content are not without technical conventions. As Thomas Apperley notes, "a growing body of work on horror-genre games argues that the effectiveness of the horror milieu is enhanced by using particular mechanical and structural rules." It is no coincidence Survival-Horror, what I consider to be the most applicable videogame genre, shares many of its characteristics and history of the Horror genre in film and literature. The Horror classification is content driven but maintains very noticeable structural and mechanical traits. The only aim of Horror games is to scare the crap out of you. Beyond low lighting and the laughter of children, it just so happens scarce resources and moments of immobility are game design choices that lend themselves well to the creation of fear.
These conventions, audio, visual, and mechanical, are the tools by which players can explore content beyond the basic characteristics of an experience. By accepting the genre conventions of a Horror or Platform game, players and developers can focus on a game's narrative themes or mechanical innovations. Genre can act as a map for explorations, the conventions are well worn paths to interesting discoveries.

Literary and film genres can provide useful examples for genres liberating characteristics. The best Science-Fiction, even Hard SciFi, says more with its content than its descriptions of space stations and alien life forms. Blade Runner teaches us more about death, human emotions, and the destructive nature of man than it does about creating artificial intelligence. Likewise, the frontier landscapes of the Western genre say a great deal about intangible frontiers. John Ford thrived in this genre not because he showed the audience how to herd cattle, but because he shared with viewers his thoughts on the American West, the sacrifice of heroism, and how even on the raggedy edge of civilization, a sense of belonging can be hard to find.

These genres have been built upon, reinterpreted, and disassembled. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is undoubtedly a Western aware of its history, and armed with convention, Eastwood uncovers the sins of its past. The cycle of interpretation creates a conversation between creators and consumers across time, and this is incredibly powerful. Michal Chabon illustrates this raw potential exquisitely in regards to the "finest 'genre writers'":

"[They] derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion, and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or to follow them but, flouting and following, to play."

Some games would not exist without the developers consciously toying with genre. Were it not for genre conventions, Call of Duty 4 could not have gripped players with the same sense of uncomfortable awe when these very genre conventions were ignored. And, as Krystian Majewski and James pointed out in comments section of last week's post, Braid also inhabitants the border lands of genre. Braid's narrative strength draws in large part from Platformer conventions and our own expectations.Genre invites developers and players alike to participate in a dialogue, between entertainer and audience, to grasp at the potential of the medium with a shared vocabulary. The worlds populated by heroes and villains, knights and dragons, aliens and space marines, are open for exploration. It would be foolish to venture into the uncharted territory of a new and growing medium without a map to guide us and help us frame our experiences. Genre may be a habitable middle ground between asserting the independence and uniqueness of videogames, while also embracing the storytelling and play that permeates through the most serious and jovial forms of entertainment.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Art, Fanboys, and the Force

It has been some time since I have thought about the old "video games as art debate," but this week, a thought provoking post has reinvigorated my interest in the subject. I am of the mind that video games are art, but I am often troubled when I attempt to amass evidence to support this feeling. Breaking a game down into its most granular details can be useful, but when I do it, I end up with a list of why I like the game, rather than why I think it is art.

Perhaps the best evidence that video games are art can be found in a phenomenon most of the gaming community scorns: Here, I speak of fanboys.

Fanboys (forgive the exclusively masculine form, as I know from experience "fanboys" are of all gender constructs) are many things, but at their core, I agree with the Wikipedia entry that describes them as "devoted to a single subject in an emotional or fanatical manner." This emotion and fanaticism is often destructive, but what initially creates these feelings?

Justin Keverne recently grappled with the issue of fanboyism, saying:

"I want to scream it from the rooftops because I believe in the power of this medium and honestly think that if I can get somebody else to have the same experience I had with this game, and others then they’ll understand it too. I cannot always accurately describe it is about a particular game that had such an affect on me, and the excitement I feel at having witnessed that moment of potentiality can make such critical thought even harder. I can explain the circumstances of the event and what I felt but even that not always enough. I get frustrated and angry at my inability to make other people understand, I get emotional, irrational. I rant, I snap, I resort to childish insults. You don’t understand and I can’t make you, and that’s painful."

This passage impressed me: I have never read a clearer explanation of how games make me feel. Justin portrays fanboys in a sympathetic light: they are people who have been affected by something wonderful, but this "something" cannot be truly explained or shared.

Art is meant to provoke the part of us that eschews logic, the part of us that cannot be rationally explained. We may speak with stoicism of meter in poetry, of color in paintings, of measures in music, and of level design in games, but these are processed reactions. We analyze these things because we find them interesting, and we find them interesting because they elicit in us uncontrollable responses. It is a cruel joke that two people can play the identical game and have completely opposite reactions. Trying to explain how and why games affect us is often a journey into absurdity.

Despite (or perhaps because) of this absurdity, it is a journey worth taking. In harnessing the emotional reactions games provoke, we may use them as introspective tools. Rational analysis empowers us with knowledge just as irrational emotion empowers us with feeling.

The trick is keeping our perspective on this journey. It is no accident that Jorge and I made the site's mantra "Serious, but not humorless, analysis of video games and culture." Without seeing the humor in the absurd task of trying to describe how art works, we would go mad and spiral into the dark side fanboyism. Fanboyism is not so much a choice as it is a force.

Thinking of it in terms of the Force actually may not be a bad way to think about it. Fanboyism is the essence that draws us to games; it compels our interest in something that is both mysterious and comforting. It can be abused, and indulging in it without restraint may warp our minds, turning us into dark shadows of our former selves. However, using feelings of fanboyism as the starting point for reflection and understanding liberates us by teaching us about ourselves, and then about all of humanity.

And what is the origin of this force? It is art. What other type of human creativity could inspire such irrational reactions? It may sound preposterous, even heretical, but art breeds fanboys.

Certainly a strange concept I will admit, but I think it makes at least as much sense as that midi-chlorian bullshit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

EXP Podcast #7: Patch Notes

The first 2009 EXP Podcast is upon us. This week we were inspired by news about a patch coming out for PixelJunk Eden mid-January that will, among other things, lower the game's difficulty. The original story is in the show notes for the curious listeners, but we mostly use it as a jumping off point to discuss patches in general, the idea of an ever-changing medium, and Star Wars.

Some discussion starters:
- Should patches be mandatory?
- Is a patched game a different game?
- How do we talk about a frequently updated title?
- How much do you hate George Lucas for ruining Star Wars? (Only slightly kidding.)

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: 28mins 1sec
- PixelJunk Eden patch coming soon.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 5, 2009

Modernizing Genre, Part One

This post is a part one of a three part series discussing videogame genres. This week I'm playing the bad cop, tearing down the useless and arbitrary categories we so commonly apply to videogames. I encourage to you disagree vehemently. However, be aware that next week I'll be writing in defense of genre. Lastly, part three of this endeavor will meditate on genre reclassification. These final thoughts are still in utero; so naturally, your comments will influence my own conclusions and are much appreciated.

The Bane of Genre

Genre is our fall back to understanding and analyzing artistic creations. Classification empowers our comparisons between games, helps us to recognize shared attributes and disparities, and shapes how we interpret these experiences before and after we play them. Genre is often the first frame we use to describe the games we play.

First-Person Shooters, Action-Adventure, Role Playing Games, Platformers, Stealth and Strategy games are some examples with which you are no doubt familiar. Wikipedia has a pretty thorough list for your perusal. These classifications tend to describe the mechanics of how the game is played, not the content.

Regardless, genres are made of mechanical, visual, and narrative conventions. Well armored soldiers and cookie-cutter army men populate Shooters, small oddly shaped protagonists traverse Platformers, and spiky-haired adolescents inhabit JRPG worlds. These tools of creation become crutches for faltering titles and can weigh down innovation.

Want a recipe for a mildly entertaining FPS? Tweak a generic space marine outfit, make your protagonist bald, give him/her a gruff voice, toss in a poorly implemented gimmick and serve at room temperature. And we are surprised that so many shooters lack innovation? Of course they do! They are built of guns and common spare parts.

Deviating from the norm means little when immersed in genre expectations. As discussed in my review, Mirror's Edge's innovative movement mechanics are crippled by shooter conventions. Dice set out to make an FPS that was not a shooter and created a frustrating oxymoron.

Japanese RPGs make little traction in the US because they too often rely on conventions that western gamers find hard to swallow. Many find resource management a frustrating characteristic of Survival-Horror games that have fallen victim to this phenomenon. I believe the same can be said for all accepted game classifications. It's not just copy cat developers, even major studios like Nintendo and Square-Enix have fallen prey to repetition. Where genre classification is accurate, it seems to supercede creative game design making the product unappealing.

When innovative games break the mold genre loses its utility. How descriptive is categorizing Portal as an FPS when the only available gun shoots portals, and turrets are your only enemies? What about calling LittleBigPlanet platformer when level creation is a crucial gameplay component? Does "Role Playing Game" adequately describe the social simulations of Persona 4? The unique characteristics of these games are incompatible with current genre terminology.

If we interpret these labels simply and literally, they are too broad to be of any use. A comedic game like Escape from Monkey Island is a vastly different experience than some of its more serious Adventure genre counterparts. Likewise, most of the games I play are adventurous - Would World of Goo fit into this category?

And how different is a third-person shooter from a first-person shooter? Are they both a sub-genre of "shooters," and if so, would Duck Hunt be related to Gears of War 2 in the shooter branch? And good luck telling the Starcraft fan fiction writers there is no role playing in strategy games. These examples are so disparate, there is no way their umbrella genre could benefit developers or players.

Most gamers are not genre fanatics, and I don't believe they rival the numbers or enthusiasm of hardcore SciFi or fantasy fans in the literature department. The top ten software sales of November include Gears of War 2, Wii Fit, Mario Kart, and Guitar Hero: World Tour, each with distinct and dissimilar gameplay.

We should hold no loyalty to the existing classifications. They are vestiges of an era where game mechanics were the most salient difference between titles. Now game styles and creative possibilities have broadened, yet we retain a set of ambiguous and arbitrary categories weighed down with convention. Genres no longer accurately describe what games players like or what tools developers can implement to strengthen their own creative works. Perhaps we should leave genre behind altogether.

Prince of Patriarchy

This post is part of a cross-blog conversation started by Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer. Feel free to offer your thoughts, and feel free to send me a message if you post a contribution so that I can add your link to this post.

In analyzing Prince of Persia, it has somewhat worrisome to see myself diverging so sharply from folks whose opinions I generally agree with, but I will attribute it to personal taste rather than a spiral into fanboyism. However, when I say I "liked" the game's story and characters, what I truly mean is that I found them "believable." Simply because something is believable does not mean it is flawless or even admirable, and critical analysis is always useful, regardless of how much I enjoyed the game. Here is one criticism I will levy on Prince of Persia: It is a game whose narrative conforms to traditional patriarchal values that condone the subjugation of both women and nature.

Elika's function in the story as well her magical abilities play into historical imagery of conflating women and the natural world. Elika acts as a healer and a protector for both the Prince and the land itself. Without her support, the Prince would either find himself dashed to bits at the bottom of one of the game's many chasms, or on the losing end of a monster's blade. In a larger sense, Elika can be seen to be fertility incarnate: She travels through a "corrupted" land to restore its lost bucolic splendor, gathering enough seeds (a figurative and literal symbol of fertility and sexuality) and, with a cry that calls to mind both orgasm and child birth, restores the land's verdancy. This mixture of nature, femininity, and sexuality is not a new concept, and arguably it is more positive than how the men in Prince of Persia are portrayed. It should still be subjected to scrutiny: Is it significant that Elika is not aggressive or that she seems perpetually selfless? What does it say that her powers are "magic" and not based on hard work, practiced skill, or rational choice? Let us not confuse fertility with agency.

The agency Elika does exhibit is repeatedly attacked by the game's male characters. In reviving Elika, her father subverts and commodifies the environment to serve his personal ends, even though it means degrading the natural world. In an attempt to exert dominion over Elika in both death and life, her father demands she remain at his side once he has revived her. He can not, or will not, tolerate her dissent or consider the suggestion that he made a mistake. Ultimately, his willingness to subvert nature leads to the destruction of his family, his city, and his being.

Initially, it seems the Prince will avoid her father's mistake as he helps Elika collect the light seeds. Ultimately, once the Prince realizes that Elika has made the choice to sacrifice herself, he chooses to overturn her decision. In doing so, he renders their previous work, along with Elika's intentions, meaningless. The Prince chops down the trees, symbolizing the destruction of nature and the final shreds of female agency. The game ends with a distraught, yet powerless Elika asking "Why?" The Prince offers no verbal answer, and even though Elika spurns his conciliatory glance, proceeds to carry his prize away from the city.

Prince of Persia's story has turned out to be surprisingly divisive. Like many folks out there, I was initially put off by the Prince's modern U.S.-centric dialect, but I soon found that the further I progressed, the more I became interested in the characters, their actions, and their motivations. I gladly took platforming breaks and listened to the "on-demand" dialogue, which provided an unexpected amount of depth to what started out as shallow characters. Even though it seems that most folks came away from Prince of Persia unsatisfied, it also appears they came away inspired to talk about it. A story that can inspire so much discussion is never a bad thing.

Edit, 1/8/08:

Remember what I said about PoP inspiring discussion? Well here is a sampling of some other PoP-inspired posts that I have enjoyed. They are well worth your time:

Prince of Quitting - The Brainy Gamer

Prince of Persia: The End - Cult of the Turtle

It's about how you feel - Discount Thoughts

A Review - VersusCluClu Land

Prince of Persia's Powerful Finish - Tangletown Games

Prince of Persia's Elika redefines "dying" in a videogame - The CutScene (Variety)

Most innovative game of 2008 - Twenty Sided

Friday, January 2, 2009

Singling out the Prince

2008 is over, but in its waning moments, Prince of Persia sparked discussions on topics as wide as the game's difficulty to its cultural responsibility. I am always in favor of thoughtful game analysis and criticism, but after reading some of the posts on Prince of Persia's narrative and artistic choices, I find myself confused. How does the gaming community come to fixate on certain games while others are given a pass? How do folks decide what nits need picking?

In a world where most video game voice work is laughably bad and stories are hopelessly bloated, how does Prince of Persia fare? While it may not be perfect, the game's story touches on complex topics such as faith, obligation, and fate without having to go into a five minute cut scene to do so. The end of the game only served to make the characters' conversations resonate more deeply, as a final choice made in the last moments of the games sheds a new light on previous conversations of the Prince and Elika's different life philosophies.

For those people uninterested in back story, the forced dialogues are relatively sparse and competently acted. For me, though, Prince of Persia is one of the few games in which the voice actors sound like they are actually interacting, rather than reading their lines in a cold, isolated sound booth.

On the topic of Elika, another odd criticism I see popping up concerns her abilities. Some argue that her magical powers make the Prince irrelevant, as she could easily complete the quest by herself. I find this strange for two reasons: One, this position is not supported by the internal logic of the game's universe. If the player tries to make Elika attack an enemy who is vulnerable only to sword or gauntlet attacks, Elika finds herself on the losing end of sucker-punch. While the Prince obviously requires her magical mulligans when it comes to platforming,Elika needs the Prince for his fighting skills.

Secondly, I am interested in why folks choose to suspend their disbelief when discussing some games and not others. It seems to me that Marcus Fenix should be wearing a helmet if he is going to take on the alien apocalypse. And does Faith fail to carry a knife or some rope to help her in her platforming? Is magic that much more difficult to divorce from the rational side of one's brain? Or is there something different about the game that draws attention to the dissonance?

Steven Totilo recently ran an interesting piece comparing the imagery of Shadow of the Colossus to Prince of Persia. I think the inspiration Ubisoft Montreal drew from Team Ico's games is apparent, but couching it in terms of "This is one top-tier 21st century development team riffing off another — or ripping them off. Fair or foul?" strikes the wrong tone. As I have said before, culture does not exist in a vacuum; games do borrow from one another, as all art does. I would most certainly hope that every game studio in existence has been influenced by the magnificence that is Shadow of the Colossus. But again, why do these things come out in an when people are discussing Prince of Persia? If memory serves correctly, Gears of War shares a few gameplay similarities to another famous action-shooter, but I would not say it was a rip off.

Which brings me back to my original question: Why are some games apparently subjected to more nitpicking than others? Perhaps it is the high standard to which we hold a beloved series? Maybe the fall season has slowed down sufficiently for people to catch their breath and start looking at games more carefully? Could it be that Prince of Persia's easy-goinggameplay allows gamers' minds to wander, thus allowing them to make connections they would otherwise miss?

Or am I just an misguided Prince of Persia apologist? I will be sharing some more thoughts on this controversial game, and I am interested to hear you all offer your opinions.