Thursday, April 30, 2009

April '09 BoRT: Characters with History

This post is part of Corvus Elrod's monthly cross-blog event, The Blogs of the Round Table. This month's topic is about social problems that disturb us, and how games handle them. As per request, I would rate this post "T" according to the ESRB ratings guide.

For this month's BoRT, Corvus asked us to imagine a game that would tackle a social issue that disturbs us. As usual, I will prod the boundaries of the topic guidelines and suggest something more nebulous than explicit violence or harmful sexism. Of the many disturbing social ills in existence, I am most troubled by societal tendency to embrace historical amnesia.

What has happened to our beloved video game heroes over the years? The answer depends on the frame of analysis: They have become prettier, have branched out into a various genres, and some have learned to speak. But as characters, as psychological and historical actors, they have remained stagnant. Examine some of the legends of the gaming pantheon like Mario, Link, Samus, Sonic, or Lara Croft, and one will find characters that defy history as readily as they do gravity. I would like to try to envision a game in which the characters do not live in a universe devoid of time and consequences. I yearn for a game that makes its characters, and by extension, the player, responsible for their actions.

As Jorge eloquently described, Gears of War 2 awkwardly attempts to humanize the brutish super soldiers introduced in the first game. While the success of marrying emotions to characters that generally amount to one-liner-spouting tanks is debatable, I found some of the scenes unexpectedly engaging. When Tai, a stout soldier in both mind and body, is taken prisoner by the enemy and brutally tortured, he ultimately kills himself. His suicide scene briefly exposes the psychological cost of total unrestricted combat. However, it is only a glimmer, and is quickly snuffed out after the cut scene ends.

Metal Gear Solid 4 contains similar sparks of character development and the exploration of trauma's effects. Snake's aging body conveys the passage of time and the exhausting life he was born into. The brilliant flashback sequence also hints at the mental toll his adventures have exacted. However, instead of using his flashback to explore his psyche, the game quickly brushes it off as a dream.

While short, scenes like these game me the impression that not only was I witnessing the effects of trauma, but as the player, I was complicit in them. After seeing Tai's death, I could not help but comtemplate what Marcus Fenix must see when he closes his eyes. Going back to setting of Metal Gear Solid 1 with Snake made me re-live the decades of missions I led him through. Every time I saw him groan and rub his back, I mused on the origins of that pain: did the recklessly thrown grenade on Shadow Moses or the the senseless fistfights I started on the Tanker contribute to that?

The gameplay wheel need not be re-invented in order for a game to create a character subject to history. Imagine a game where in some scenes, the player controls a character at the height of their physical and mental prowess. They could go "Rambo" at every opportunity and still survive, but they would face the consequences in the next scene, in which they would control the same character some forty years later. Is it not somewhat perverse that, in most games, fighting makes characters stronger? What if experience points were not absolutely positive?

Perhaps all the gunfire damaged their ears, and the sound would be muffled? Maybe all of the flips and physical stress has lead to chronic pain, thus severely limiting the player's movement. Post-traumatic stress disorder could come in to play: the years of battles might make the older version of the character prone to flashbacks or hallucinations similar to those in Eternal Darkness. It could that be in winning the wars of yesterday, the player paved the way for the character's journey into obscurity. Envisioning Duke Nukem, rid of any alien foes, whiling away the hours as an employee in a run down hardware store is both hilarious and melancholic.

Video games excel in reflecting the way humans often conceptualize the world: in discrete moments. While it is essential for survival, viewing events as snapshots, disconnected from a timeline of events, is both limiting and damaging over the long term. I fervently hope that Six Days in Fallujah will show us the broader ramifications of war and its effect on people, but I fear we will learn very little about how the combatants actually dealt with the process of being sent, surviving in, and coming back from conflict.

There will always be a place for characters that exist within their contextual vacuums, but this need not apply to all games. Link is known as the "Hero of Time," but I think the medium would be equally enriched by heroes that simply existed in time.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

EXP Podcast #23: Gears of War Roundup

Well yippee-kay-yay, this week on the EXP Podcast we focus on big burly men with chainsaw-guns. Developed by Epic Games, the Gears of War franchise has found immense success amongst a variety of gamers. With a collection of books , a movie in the works, and an inevitable third game, Gears of War just seems to stick in our minds for some reason. Earlier this week L.B. Jeffries of Popmatters drew connections between GoW2 and the Iliad , the talented editors/contributors of Critical Distance chatted about GoW2 and ludonarrative dissonance (which Scott and I discuss briefly on this podcast), and I wrote my own Sensationalist piece on the game Monday.

Scott and I finished both games in the series on cooperative mode, much like Resident Evil 5. Though not as controversial as RE5, we still plumb the subterranean depths of Gears of War and find some "sweet" analysis of the coop experience, over-the-top storytelling, and how to make giant worms even more epic. Please share your own thoughts in the comments section, we love to hear them.

Some discussion starters:
- Do you think the Gears of War franchise is representative of triple-A games at large? Has Gears become cliche?
- Do you think Epic is wasting their time incorporating a serious story on top of the tone set by gameplay?
- Somewhat referring to last week's podcast, would you show a videogame outsider Gears of War to draw them into the medium?

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

Show Notes:

- Run time: 34 min 40sec
- Music by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sensationalist: Loss, Value and Gears of War

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

Most Sensationalist posts will likely revolve around how games succeed in evoking emotions and sensations, but there are times when a game's failures provide just as much insight into the creation of emotion. The Gears of War franchise, particular the most recent sequel, is such a case of interesting failure. Developed by Epic Games, and the oddly-notorious-for-a-developer Cliff Bleszinski, Gears of War undoubtedly focuses on immense action and explosive entertainment. Yet atop this tale of gargantuan soldiers exuding masculinity, Epic attempts to tell a story of loss.

The sadness that accompanies loss is not alien to us by any means. Most everyone has lost a loved one, be they family or pet, so it is relatively east to feel empathy for those coping with the death of someone close. It could be said playing off such emotions is an easy method to captivate an audience, a sucker punch to the heart. Yet Gears fails to elicit an emotional response despite having an easy target, largely due to crippling thematic incompatibilities.

There are plenty of unfortunate deaths in the Gears franchise. Marcus Fenix, the game's lead, sees first hand the death of a superior officer, a fellow soldier of comparable girth, two of four Carmine brothers (rookies), a compatriot's wife, and various soldiers, civilians, and enemy combatants. There are plenty of reasons this rough member of the Cog Army could get misty-eyed, but he never does.
Yet surely we can feel for our protagonist, even if he shows no outward sign of emotion. There is no reason we cannot empathize with a soldier who has traveled through the depths of an enemies subterranean home and lost friends along the way. Soldiers stolid in the face of suffering could even enhance the story as we embrace the emotion they do not have the luxury to feel. Even the most impassive individuals can be the face of tragedy, as long as we are shown through other means (cut scenes of a normal world, playable flashbacks, etc.) the importance of what we've lost. However, even visually, only the destruction is beautiful.

It is impossible to feel a sense of loss when nothing in the world but violence holds value. Marcus does not interact with loss in any significant way. His compatriot's suicide earns a "Nooo " and some disapproving head shakes, but the mission quickly resumes as if it never happened. This same cold focus on the mission at hand occurs after every scene of loss, which itself acts as a transition between calculation and sports camaraderie taunts like "Sup bitches" and "Eat boot," which all delta squad members seem to enjoy.

The most emotional scene in Gears occurs when Dom, searching for his lost wife through both games, finds her emaciated and zombie-like, and puts her out of her misery. I actually find the scene in question more powerful out of context. The story is potentially effective because we are so familiar with this cliche yet mournful tragedy, but the opportunity is wasted. Marcus and Dom spare two sentences of vague remorse and head full speed into battle.
Maria, Dom's wife, is just one of many valueless objects in the Gears universe. What makes makes Maria so appealing, other than she appears to be the last civilian female on the planet? What memories does Dom hold so dear that he would risk the fate of the world on finding her? Our protagonists show little affection for anything but violence and "hot food." We are never shown what makes this planet worth saving, so there can be no sense of loss.

I find it hard to critique the game for trying to evoke emotion and in a pre-established universe that makes such an effort impossible. The lesson may be that the combination of epic adventure and jovial stylized violence may be incompatible with evoking mournful sensations. Had Marcus shown concern for the safety of civilians, or interacted with his own emotions and the emotions of others more sincerely, the ravished world could stand in contrast to a valuable world rich in meaning, but this may have sullied the experience. Instead, a rallying speech from Chairman Prescott explains why violence is the only thing of value in Gears: "War is all we know."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: Zephyrs and Zeitgeists in Lost Winds

In this brave new world of downloadable console games, it is easy for an old curmudgeon like Yours Truly to worry about the fate of traditional platformers. Can good 'ol fashioned 2D sidescrollers exist in a world whose newest medium brings us everything from artistic experimentation to the patently absurd? Fortunately, Lost Winds, created by Fronteir Developments and released on WiiWare, assuages any fears related to platformers' fates in this climate of blooming DLC. More importantly, it embraces the latest format and technology to enhance the old 2D formula to provide a fresh take on gameplay with deep roots.

Lost Winds makes excellent use of the Wii's unique control style in terms of both story and gameplay. The plot itself is one that sounds familiar enough: a young boy, Toku, happens upon a benevolent wind-spirit, Enril, and the two join forces in order to prevent an evil deity from grabbing power. Things get a bit more complicated in the execution of this mission: using the Nunchuk to control Toku and the Wiimote to control Enril, the player traverses landscapes, solves puzzles, and fights baddies in hopes of saving the fair land of Mystralis.

In Lost Winds, the player advances the plot by utilizing the Toku and Enril's divided skill sets. Because of this, both the gameplay and the story contain novel takes on traditional video game mainstays. Unlike so many other platform heroes, Toku lacks the power to jump twice his height, and he is unable to conjure fireballs, or wield a mace to thwart opponents. Running, gathering items, and short hops are the order of the day.

Super-human feats are supplied by Enril and controlled by a variety of subtle, yet distinct Wiimote motions. Fast, straight lines elicit gusts used to help Toku jump over chasms. More complex aerial routes are achieved by tracing flight paths for Toku to glide on with his Super Mario World-inspired cape. Although the infamous "Wii waggle" is present, it is used strategically to create a small cyclone that cushions the fall from a high ledge. Enril and Toku work in unison when solving puzzles that require the use of environmental objects like torches and boulders. Whether it is trouncing baddies or scaling the village rooftops, the game teaches the player to use both characters, and both control inputs in unison.

This complementary dynamic is elegantly linked with the game's narrative. Toku and Enril rely on one another within the narrative to complete their quest, and the player must learn to integrate their divided skill sets during the gameplay. Initially, not having a "jump" button was disconcerting in both a narrative and gameplay sense: thoughts of "I wish I had a jump button!" were followed by "Why can't this guy jump?" Thankfully, the omission morphed from an annoyance to a pleasure: it forced me to experiment with the wind, thereby letting me discover the nuance in the controls while also inspiring deeper thought about the game's characters.

Even when not performing an attack or aerial technique, subtle touches remind the player that he exists as a companion as well as a reticule. Every time a character addresses Enril, it differentiates his function from the legions of other Wii games with WiiMote cursors. Enril's movement continuously impacts the environment: if the player moves the cursor past a character, a gentle breeze ruffles their clothes, leaves rustle asEnril glides past them, and health items are yielded by whisking through the grass.

All this is presented graphically in a modest, yet pleasant storybook motif. Pastel hues and backgrounds resembling water-color paintings are favored over highly detailed textures and realism. Rather than animated cut scenes, stylized tableaux paintings are used for expository purposes. The artwork in these scenes is a cross between concept art and mock-archaeological glyphs that give the world of Mystralis a textured feel.

These visuals supply much needed breaks in between some challenging gameplay segments. Lost Winds, despite the impish look of its characters and its existence on a "casual gamer" console, is no pushover in terms of challenge. Controlling the wind to manipulate objects takes patience and precise movements and the puzzles require surprising amounts of physical and mental dexterity to perform. Many times I had to reach solid ground and stop for a moment to size up my surroundings in hopes of finding a solution to a puzzle, or to prepare for a particularly difficult series of wind-assisted jumps.

As many of you know by now, I am somewhat of a masochist when it comes to video games. These difficulties did not bother me, but I can easily see how some might be turned some of the game's more unforgiving elements. In many ways, the game is perfect for someone that likes their games to push back: optional collectibles add depth to the action and the puzzles, the lack of a map means those that learn the world will have an easier time finding their goals, and the various wind-related gymnastics and attacks take time to master.

Lost Winds takes advantage of the possibilities the Wii presents and marries them to long-held gaming concepts to create something charmingly innovative. The game's delicate gameplay and narrative touches impress without drawing attention away from the experience as a whole. Like many downloadable games, Lost Winds can be completed in a relatively short amount of time. A sequel has been confirmed, and I will be interested to see what direction the series goes. I could see the game becoming episodic, with each installment focusing on a different gameplay style; perhaps one segment would be a series of Braid-like puzzles while another a gauntlet of Shadow of the Colossus-inspired boss battles?

Lost Winds strikes a perfect balance for someone who can be circumspect in their gaming tastes. Although these are the winds of change, they carry with them an air of familiarity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

EXP Podcast #22: Games for the Uninitiated

If you read this site, you are probably one of two kinds of people:

1. The kind that loves video games or...
2. The kind that is subjected to rants about why we love video games (i.e. non-gamer friends and family).

This week, we were inspired by Owen Good's article about explaining the allure of video games to non-gamers. We use his discussion of trying to decide which games to demonstrate for his grandfather as starting point to discuss the tricky business of sharing our favorite games to people that probably have never heard of them. It is a situation in which many of us have found ourselves, so please feel free to share your stories in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever tried to explain or demonstrate your gaming interests to a non-gamer? How successful were you?
- What is the most effective way to draw someone in to gaming? Finding a game that ties in with their interests? Showing them something completely new? Demonstrating graphical realism? Showing them inventive story-telling?
- Which games would you show to a non-gamer and why? What would you want to communicate to them?

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: 30 min 20 sec
- Owen Good's Article, via Kotaku: "What Would You Show to Someone Who's Never Seen a Game"
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Videogame Generation Gap

Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me:
But old folks, many feign as they were dead;
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.

(Act II, Scene 7, Romeo & Juliet)

My tastes have changed since I was younger (I prefer mojitos more than Kool-Aid on a hot day for example), but I like to think my videogame preferences have generally been consistent. Sure I like a broader taste of games now, but I also have better access to games, and thus a broader selection of interesting titles to choose from. Yet for some reason, it seems the older I get the more I feel it necessary to attribute my personal tastes, or complaints, to the generation gap. Donning a "kids these days" mentality to brush off increasingly popular, or unpopular, videogame trends as anomalies is unhealthy for game development and criticism.

I write this not because a particular piece of journalism or podcast sinned in some way, but because I've noticed the frequent appearance of phrases like "maybe I'm just getting old but" or "I am to old for." I too am guilty of relying on this platitude when I'd rather not elaborate my opinion. But these sayings fall into a trap. They deny any significance to what actually explains differing beliefs and values between gamers.

There is undeniably a popular notion in American culture that the generation gap exists and that it is natural. Parents will never understand their children, the old will never be able to handle youth culture, etc. Though children will always find their voice independent of their parents, the generation gap, if it exists, is not nearly as influential as we might think. There are, in fact, plenty of healthy parent-child relationships far into adulthood. The generation gap exemplified by youths' rebellious spirit is exacerbated by marketing tactics exploiting our cultural fetish with youth and a false need to define ourselves by what we buy.
The videogame generation gap may not stem from the same source, but its symptoms are similar. There is a sense that as gamers mature, their tastes mature, they become less patient, and they find it more difficult to internalize new videogame challenges. If the future is as predicted, I may enter my old age replaying Bioshock over and over again because I can't handle those "damnfangled" VR machines.

While I will certainly become senile myself, there is little evidence to suggest adults can't handle new technology. The number of Wii players over fifty and of older adults who have grown comfortable in the Internet savvy world, is a testament to our technical adaptability. There are already sites designed for "old" gamers. Rather than shrug off those who do have a hard time picking up new games as too old, we should reexamine how game educate new players, which is by no means a new concern.

The same can be said for maturing tastes and waning patience of aging gamers. There are plenty of gamers well into adulthood who will excitedly purchase the next Peggle or Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad. Likewise, my desire for games that allow me to save whenever I like is not the result of my growing laziness, but of a shrinking amount of leisure time.
This need not be attributed to a generation gap, despite an obvious correlation. The same goes for difficulty. I do not have time to crash against a wall of failure again and again, but if I lost my job I would suddenly have the time to waste on trivial pursuits. However, I could also just be the type of gamer who enjoys exploration over skill tests and severe punishment, irrespective of age.

I am not one to point to the past as an ideal, but I can understand the concern self-proclaimed "old school gamers" have for the future of videogames. Perhaps some of the fervor to innovate endlessly, to find the next niche game carved out by young developers, has to do with a paranoia we have of growing old and stale, of becoming lost to the videogame generation gap. In doing so, we may miss important lessons from games we played years ago.

That is not to say old and troubling paradigms don't exist in the videogame industry. Even Will Wright, approaching his fifties, understands the importance of new industry trends. But such focus should retain a critical eye towards the history of games we've already established. This includes fields outside of the videogame industry. There is a lot to learn from theater, literature, web 2.0 interface design, and even modern dance. Incorporating the a broad array of cross-generational experiences, is the best way to ensure I'll be playing games well into eighties.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Aristotelian Gaming

A while back, I put out a call to Twitter asking for tips on important works in artistic criticism. As a student of history, my strongest inclination when studying something is to examine the events that preceded it. In hopes of understanding fruitful ways to critique games, I find it helpful to examine the structures of discourse from other mediums. This way, it is possible to borrow what is useful, learn from what has failed, and discard what is superfluous. In many ways, the critical space of video game analysis feels like a wild frontier, and this post is my first effort in obtaining a map of this strange new place.

I am trying to walk that thin line between self-important intellectualism and practical analysis, so bear with me if things get messy. Critical works from other mediums will never yield perfect matches, but that does not negate the lessons learned. To this end, I will dive in head first: What can Aristotle's Poetics teach us about games?

This was the first time I had read Poetics1, and I was astounded at how applicable Aristotle's thinking is to even the newest of mediums. While not all of his rhetoric is as spry as it once was, there is a reason why his work remains relevant.

While one could dedicate their lives to understanding and dissecting Aristotle's Poetics (many have), for the purpose of this post I will focus on two major concepts Aristotle discusses and describe how they can help us understand and analyze video games.

Imitation and Learning

Aristotle argues that the existence and enjoyment of poetry arises "from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature" (15). One, "the instinct for harmony and rhythm" seems more applicable to poetry than video games, although the influence of harmony and rhythm should not be underestimated. One could argue for the existence of metre and verse in games as well, but that is a discussion for another post.

Aristotle's other explanation for the existence of poetry speaks not only to why people enjoy video games, but more importantly, why the medium itself is intrinsically valuable. Aristotle holds that the basis of poetry is imitation; imitation of people, nature, emotions, of existence in general.

Because "imitation is implanted in man from childhood," (15) "everyone feels a natural pleasure n things imitated. There is evidence of this in the effect produced by works of art. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with absolute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble beasts and of dead bodies" (15). Like poetry, video games delight us by presenting representations of the mundane and the fantastic, challenging us to understand the representations. Something as pedestrian as a bale of hay delights us when it appears in a game like Flower. While it would normally be terrifying to see a killer worm the size of city, Gears of War 2 makes it a treat.

Aristotle, reasons that the pleasure derived from imitation is actually produced by the learning process that occurs during the consumption of poetry. After all, "to learn is a lively pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general...Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they are engaged in learning,--they reason and infer what each object is: 'this,' they say, 'is the man.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such other cause" (15).

Here, Aristotle may be used to elegantly argue for the merit and importance of games as an art: as they are imitative, they inspire players to think critically about what is being represented. Whether it is a physical entity, like a city in Grand Theft Auto, or something thematic like the sense of loneliness in Ico, the material being imitated must be given meaning by the person playing.

Playing a game utilizes the same skills that, according to Aristotle, make poetry and plays high art. The audience and the player are rewarded by learning to understand both the imagery and the rules governing the art's composition.

The Plot of a Game

In discussing tragedy, Aristotle asserts the Plot as the "first principle" (27) of a great work, to which all other aspects (setting, characters, props) are subordinate. He argues that plot of a truly great tragedy must be "so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, any one who is told told the incidents will thrill with horror and pity at the turn of events" (45).

While not the definitive way to evaluate a game, an Aristotelian hierarchy can help identify which pieces of a game are most important. This line of thinking can be modified to examine a game's structure. In the case of games, Aristotle's basic reasoning may be used if the primacy is shifted off of the plot and on to the gameplay.

At its most basic level, a game can be called a set of rules with which a player interacts with. The combination and execution of said rules make up gameplay. While a game may have an explicit narrative, detailed graphics, and vivid characters, it is the gameplay that distinguishes it from a film or book.

Aristotle challenges us to strip a tragedy of it of its characters, setting, and props and see how well the plot stands on its own. In this way, we can measure the greatness of a work. A similar mode of analysis may be applied to video games in terms of the gameplay. For games, the Aristotelian "plot" is actually the gameplay: Pong and can be dressed up in many ways, but their essence, that is to say their basic rules, make them great.

A Useful, Imperfect Analogy

Not all of Aristotle's philosophy fits snugly with game criticism. The world is in many ways a vastly different place: plays no longer last the whole day, modern psychology has complicated Aristotle's inflexible hierarchy of beauty, and technology has opened possibilities classical philosophers could only dream about.

Much of Aristotle's writing has been lost to the ages, and some of its meaning has been obscured by time. Notice I did not attempt to address one of the most controversial topics in Poetics: catharsis. Perhaps the idea of building up an emotion and then purging it applies to games as well? The terror of fighting a zombie hoard or the sorrow losing Aeris are satisfying on an emotional level. However, Aristotle's own ideas on this concept are vague, and I am hesitant to build my already flimsy house on such ancient, shifting sand.

What is clear is that the rubric of high art according to one of the giants of European thinking can be used to evaluate video games in spite of their relative youth as a genre. Aristotle gives the plot of a story precedence over all other elements. In the case of games, the "plot" represents the gameplay, as rules are its basic structure. Within every great game is excellent gameplay capable of standing alone after the baubles of technology and characters are removed.

Most importantly, Aristotle provides an elegant way of defining the allure and the redeeming value of art: in imitating life, it stokes the thirst for knowledge. If we were to ask Aristotle whether games, like poetry and theater, can be art, he might ask us whether they invite interpretive reasoning in their audience. Do they make us think?

We would say yes, and he would say that we have our answer.

1. In this post, citations refer to page numbers in, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, With a Critical Text and a Translation of The Poetics by S.H. Butcher. London: Macmillan and Co., 1895.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

EXP Podcast #21: Perpetual War Games

Last week, Konami announced Six Days in Fallujah, a game set during the tumultuous 2004 batle in Fallujah, Iraq, developed by Atomic Games. Nothing stirs up controversy like a videogame adaptation set in a current war zone (except a large scoop of gratuitous nudity). With war veterans on both side of the fence, it is not so easy to work out how videogames should address warfare and current events. Yet Scott and I try to do just that anyway! Join us while we discuss PR insults, mixing games and social messages, and limitations of fun.

At the bottom of the page, you'll find our delightful show notes. In them you'll find the Wall Street Journal's and LA Times' articles concerning
Six Days in Fallujah, we encourage you to read them, particular for soldiers' opinions. Also, Chris Breckon of Shacknews had a closer look at the actual game, the product seems unsatisfying, but his thoughts on the subject are insightful. As always, we look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:
- Is there a market for games about current events, particularly about controversial subjects?
- Can a game intend to make players uncomfortable yet still be fun, or does this defeat the purpose?
- Have any games you've played addressed serious and currently significant subjects?

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: 24 min 59 sec
- Wall Street Journal, Iraq, The Videogame
- Los Angeles Times, Konami announcement update
- Chris Breckon of Shacknews, Six Days in Fallujah, One Small Problem
- Oligarchy, a political game about the petroleum era.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: The Path Less Traveled

Spoiler Pirate says "Yarrrr... there be spoilers ahead!"

Taking a look at classic children's literature, you'll find yourself amidst stories with far more complexity than most adults find comfortable in the hands of a child. Grim fairy tales are, as the name suggests, macabre tales of childhood adventures gone awry and the folklore adaptations on which Disney made a fortune have some dark origins. The Path, developed by Belgium based Tale of Tales, is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that fits nicely into the collection of creepy fairy tales.

For those unfamiliar with The Path, the game follows six young girls (ostensibly sisters, but one could easily interpret them as different single women at six separate stages of adolescence) tasked with going to grandmother's house without straying from the path. Yet, heading straight to grandmother's results in a "failure" notification. To "succeed" in the game, you must escort these young girls into the forest, where they will collect experiences with strange objects and environments and encounter "the wolf." The wolf takes many forms, but the result is always the same: the young girl awakes in the rain, seemingly abused, and walks into a house cluttered with frightening symbols of the girl's suffering.

As the young girls become lost in the woods (and getting lost is easy to do), they interact with objects and make short comments, revealing aspects of their character. To interact with an object, be it a knife, a swing, an outdoor theater, or a boat, you walk up to the object until a silhouette appears, and then you do nothing. As the player, you interact by not interacting. Observed through a narrative lens, the player escorts a young girl to the tools of her destruction and stands aside while the girl forges her own way on a path that will inevitably lead to suffering.
With this non-interaction, Tale of Tales critiques our preconceived notions of what is an "OK" input mechanism, but more importantly, they make the player partially responsible for the fate of these sisters. Part of the terror of this game, aside from the disturbing audio-visuals, is the sense you as the player are intimately involved with whatever grotesques occur in the woods outside grandmother's house.

Naturally, this non-interaction has rubbed some gamers the wrong way. The game asks players to set aside in-game interaction in favor of narrative interaction, to look for meaning in the woods, behind the bizarre imagery and cryptic symbolism. For those accustomed to "interactive stories" in which players interact with the controller more than the story, the task is uncomfortable. Strong themes of womanhood, death, control, and sexual violence make the task no easier. Let it be said, this game is not a "fun" experience in the classical sense.

Yet the story is enticing; the symbolism is apparent and invites a myriad of interpretations. Even now, I am struggling not to spend the entire post rambling about how the age of each girl is an odd number, how the prevalence of red blends together notions of death and menstruation, how the grandmother surrounds herself with memories of suffering out of cowardice, and how the girl in white can stray from the path and becomes a mixture of wisdom, ignorance, and death itself. Such metaphorical adventures are best had in-game and in the Tale of Tales forums.

The creators call The Path an "experimental game." I'm not entirely sure what aspects were experimental, and so it is hard to see where this experimentation game succeeds. However, I can see why this game is particularly derided by some. Its demand for narrative interpretation requires an uncomfortable level of subjectivity, asking players to reflect on meaning found in the game and apply their own experiences and interpretive lenses. I derived a lot of meaning from The Path, but all personal profiles are unique, and others may find this work too dense at no fault of their own.
There are times where it is easy to feel overwhelmed, particularly with the elements that are most "game like." I found it difficult reconciling the game's definition of success, when success meant violent ends for the sisters. Likewise, the 144 meaningless collectible flowers may be more of a critique of videogame conventions than an important narrative element. Yet, these quandaries are secondary to the thematic riddles laced through the game.

There is no denying The Path is obscure. Like a film by David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman, it plays like a very personal creation, a work imbued with intentionally elusive meaning. The Path allows participants to consume and explore the vagaries of a story in which we can only be certain severe abuse occurs. The narrative is boggling, but that's alright. Tale of Tales took a path less traveled and made a game I'm comfortable calling "artistic," even "artsy," although it cannot be universally appreciated.

I believe there is enough room under the videogame umbrella for titles that bend popular notions of failure and ask for greater narrative participation than mechanical participation. Tale of Tales reminds us that we can encounter meaning even when we stray from the path of convention and explore the medium that is more expansive than we often recognize.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thinking is for Losers

At work, I have random quote generator at the top of my email inbox that sends me down a surprisingly large number of mental paths. This week, I opened up my inbox and read the following quote:

"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."

It does not take much to get me thinking about video games, but this saying was particularly resonant in light of our completion of Resident Evil 5 and Jesper Juul's paper about the importance of failure in games. I am becoming increasingly convinced that some of the most thought-provoking game are ones that not only offer the possibility of losing, but also go out of their way to make sure the player must learn by failure and experimentation. In other words, if you want to think really hard about solving actual problems in games, you better be ready to lose.

It delights me when I listen to folks who played the same game as me, encountered the same events as me, found the same solution as me, but still derived from the experience a level of enjoyment completely different than mine. Iroquois Plisken over at Versus CluCluLand has some interesting thoughts on RE 5, and I will quote him at length as he describes one of the game's boss battles:

It's a fundamental unclarity about affordance that had us stuck on some of the later boss battles. RE5 leans heavily on its context-sensitive button prompts to inform you about the environment-- whenever you're in the vicinity of something that can be used (pulled, pushed, operated, swung, cut, uppercutted), the X button appears at the bottom of the screen. That's how you find out something is usable.

The problem is, when you're faced by some homicidal ex-partner who's flipping around and unloading clips into you, getting some proximity is the last thing you want to do. Nothing signals to the player that this enemy can be used in a totally novel way when you're both at close range. We spent a lot of time hung up on the wrong solution-- shooting from a distance-- before we
accidentally ended up at close range. And it was only then that the context-sensitive menus popped up and the game telegraphed the correct solution to us.

This basic issue recurs in a suite of late-game boss encounters-- these enemies have unique affordances that you need to know, but the only way you discover them is by approaching really close under select conditions and seeing the X button pop up at the bottom of the screen. This is bad puzzle design.

I agree with everything said except the last sentence. Like Jorge and Iroquois, I found this sequence, as well as the overall game, frustrating. Unlike them, I also found it exhilarating.

RE 5 is full of arbitrary rules with little bearing on our reality. While this can be confusing and frustrating, the game's rules, while arbitary, are constant and can be grasped, tested, utilized, and exploited with careful study (we discussed this in depth on the podcast).

Jorge and I approached the boss battle Iroquois described the same way we approached the previous ones: guns blazing. We actually succeeded in killing Jill. We rejoiced, thinking that we won, and were instead greeted by the game over screen. The encounter was designed to throw into question everything we had learned about the way the game worked up to that point, and in order to progress, we had to start thinking. We employed an in-game version of the scientific method we all (hopefully) learned in grade school:

1. Question: "How do we beat this boss?"
2. Background research: "We beat each previous boss and enemy by blasting the hell out of it."
3. Hypothesis: "If we blast the hell out of this boss we will beat it."
4. Experiment: "Shoot her with the rifle Jorge, I got the shotgun!"
5. Data Analysis: "We killed the boss, but still 'lost' the game."
6. Conclusion: "Using guns is not the way to win, let's try another tactic."

The catch with this way of approaching a game is that, like science, it requires trial, error, and re-trial. I like to think that games like Zelda help me flex my mind muscles, but the truth is I have not died or become stuck in a Zelda game since A Link to the Past. We praise games like Zelda for making us think, but I am not convinced the thought they inspire is particularly deep or creative thinking because there is little failure to learn from. The environmental puzzles are designed to catch the players eye and communicate meaning before any interaction has taken place. See a crack in the wall? Since there are no other cracks in any walls, something must be up. See a particularly well rendered boulder? Odds are you should interact with it. Encounter a new enemy after getting the boomerang? Well, guess which weapon is its weakness? Very little experimentation is required, and yet solving the "problem" is meant to feel rewarding.

Deep thought and analysis necessitates punishment, and gamers tend not to like punishment, which brings me back to the quote I shared at the beginning. When a game like RE 5 comes along, it is criticized for presenting challenges whose solutions are not readily apparent. Like the adventure games of yore, sometimes the answers in RE 5 necessitate some creative thinking and that often comes after failure.

As Jesper Juul's paper concludes, there seems to be "sweet spot" in regards to game difficulty. Players tend to function like game-playing Goldilocks: A game should not be too hard nor too easy, but just right. More research needs to be done, but I have a suspicion that the average "sweet spot" of analytical thinking in games is very low on the y-axis:

I want to save some of my thoughts on the relationship between thinking and difficulty in games for future posts, but I would like to hear from you all: How often do games make you think about the literalgameplay rather than the artistic meaning? Is there a place for "scientific-method" style gaming in modern games? Have there been any games that made you frustrated at the time and then proved satisfying upon your triumph?

Have I turned into a mindless RE 5 fanboy whose only goal is to shamble to the nearest Internet connection and try to corrupt your braaaaains? Some outside opinions are necessary.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

EXP Podcast #20: Resident Evil 5 Debriefing

Grab you shotgun and your thinking caps, because this week, we are devoting the podcast to a thorough discussion of Resident Evil 5! We put in some marathon couch co-op sessions, analyzing everything from the control scheme to the game's character development. As we discuss in the show, Resident Evil 5 quickly became a controversial game in a number of respects. The game has sparked debates over everything from game design to social responsibility, so we take some extra time to delve into this surprisingly complicated game. We encourage everyone to read the show notes for some background on the ethnicity discussion, as some very smart folks have calmly, patiently, and rationally explained the issues behind the game's imagery. These are some charged topics, but as always, we welcome feedback and discussions. Feel free to send us an email or post your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- When does a control scheme move from being a "style" to simply being outdated? If you have played the game, do you think RE5 crosses this line?
- Resident Evil has always featured arbitrary, yet constant rules. To what extent do you appreciate "game-eyness" in your video games? What do you think about the "if-then" gameplay we discussed?
- What kind of co-op games most effectively make use of two-player teamwork: do structured, explicitly-designed two player challenges or more free-form, player initiated cooperation make for better cooperation?
- What are games' obligations towards social responsibility? How can games address complicated issues like race, class, gender, and politics?

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: 50 min 16 sec
- N'Gai Croal's original comments on the RE5 Trailer: "Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal On The ‘Resident Evil 5′ Trailer: ‘This Imagery Has A History'"
- Shawn Elliot: "Primal Fear: Haunted by Ghosts of Predators Past"
- Shawn Elliot: "Racial Imagery in RE5 Trailer?"
- Evan Narcisse on Crispy Gamer: "Thought/Process: More on Resident Evil 5 and Uncomfortable Echoes"
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, April 6, 2009

Broadening Failure

At the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, MIT ludologist Jesper Juul gave a talk entitled Fear of Failing: The many meanings of difficulty in videogames. You can find the written content of Juul's speech in its entirety here. Juul has this to day about the utility of failure in videogames:

"The study of players discussed in this essay indicates that failure serves the deeper function of making players readjust their perception of a game. In effect, failure adds content by making the player see new nuances in a game."

Through his implications regarding the "sweet spot" of difficulty for game designers, I wanted to explore multiple types of failure and how they've been expressed in recent games. Let me begin by saying this post is more of an exploration of failure than a treatise. I encourage you to share your own experiences with failure and punishment. I can assure, I have hours of failing experience myself.

Just this past weekend, Scott and I were playing Resident Evil 5, fighting the final boss. Unfortunately, our ammo reserve was depleted and we were forced to rely on our knife attack. If you've played RE5, you know how absolutely absurd it is to accomplish such a feat. Naturally, the battle was taking longer than expected, and I vocalized my discontent. Scott, on the other hand, was enjoying this herculean test of skill.
Aside from illuminating our competing perceptions about game difficulty, for me, this experience was about failure. No man should have to fight tentacled monstrosities with a knife! In my eyes, we had already failed. I'm almost certain Capcom had no intention of humiliating players to such a degree, so having to conduct the fight with a knife instead of a shotgun was their way of punishing players for their lack of foresight. We should have anticipated a boss battle and stocked up on ammo accordingly.

For others, failure is only failure when the game over screen pops up. This is the difference between Outcome Failure and Process Failure, two types of failure easily applied to game design. Though I agree with Juul's position that players want to feel somewhat responsible for failure, differentiating between competing forms is important because it shapes how players perceive punishment. In my case, the punishment lasted far longer than it should have considering I had already internalized my failure and drawn what nuance I could from the game's mechanics.

I also think there is a small, but important difference between in-game and out-of-game punishments for failure. The RE5 knife fight is an in-game punishment because it does not necessarily allude to the player. There is no point where the game says "You Sir, on the couch, eating a hot pocket; you messed up big time." Sure, increased difficulty is punishing the player, but I can also imagine Chris and Sheva are being punished for their own incompetency. With a little imagination, I can distance myself from the failure and feel only "somewhat responsible." Why blame myself when I can blame the protagonist?

The out-of-game punishment explicitly defines failure as my own. I would consider a game over screen an example of excessive punishment in this category. A more apparent example is failure in a multiplayer game. Take Left 4 Dead as an example. Success in L4D depends on team cohesion, and there are various in-game punishments for straying too far from the flock. There is also out-of-game punishments when team members chide other players for their poor gameplay. When players rely on each other , voice chat becomes a punishment tool to reinforce good player behavior. In this case, social dynamics pressure players to improve their skills lest they become insulted.
None of these failures and punishments are inherently better than the other. The fact I located failure earlier in my RE5 experience than Scott is likely personal preference in regards to difficulty and rewards. If I could silence my perfectionist gamer traits, perhaps I would have enjoyed the lengthy knife fight. Unlike Scott, I don't want all my skills to be tested at the seams.

Likewise, in-game and out-of-game punishments can be good or bad. There are plenty of unforgiving games, demanding tedious replays after every failure. Yet multiplayer punishment isn't always an improvement, especially when people insult your mother instead of give you tips on how to improve your performance. Some games are unforgiving with failure, forcing players to persist in the face of tiresome gameplay.

Perhaps it better to clarify Juul's claim by saying good failure adds content, and good failure depends on a games themes and forms of punishment. Ammunition conservation in Resident Evil 5 is just as important as its grotesque monstrosities in creating high stress situations. Likewise, group voice chat in Left 4 Dead develops team camaraderie and promulgates successful gameplay tactics. Meanwhile, games like The Path quietly dismember our notions of sucess and failure. Gamer masochism never ceases to amaze me.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spreading the Spirit of GDC

It is late March in San Francisco. The fog has has relinquished its near-absolute grip on the city, perhaps by chance, but perhaps out of pity. Regardless of the reason, the sun has stepped in to make sure city puts its best foot forward as a group of visitors arrive. It has been a rough twelve months for this group. They have felt the sting of a vicious economic downturn, and struggle to define themselves, even though their craft is in its infancy. Yet, this week, all the woes seem a bit distant, all the problems a bit smaller, and some of the grievances lose their impact. This is Game Developers Conference, and they are video game journalists.

To be sure, game developers are experiencing tough times as well: the bleak economy, rampant piracy, soaring development costs, and securing a good publisher make every release a minor miracle. However, what strikes me most about GDC is the mood it inspires in the game journalism establishment.

Game writing as we have known it is struggling as the meaning and form of its existence changes. With the fall of print magazines and the struggle to maintain solvent web operations, the business side of journalism is grim. On the philosophical side, there are a plethora of erudite folks like Leigh Alexander and N'Gai Croal (the latter now a former games journalist) who are actively searching for a new way to write about games. Despite their efforts, one gets the impression that most days we "serious," "brainy," and "critical" game writers are shouting into the wind.

For professional games writers, it seems the gloomiest aspect of their work is dealing with PR. I do not wish to single out people who work in public relations as bad people. The inane spouting of corporate gibberish and the relentless game of "cover your own ass" is more a demonstration of the Arendt's "banality of evil" than it is of any particular character flaw. Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization should both realize and accept this (as they have most certainly been participants). Of course, the reasons and means by which the bull-shit is justified are little comfort for those charged with dealing with the ends.

"Press release quotes are the emptiest, most meaningless examples of human communication," laments Chris Remo. I agree, and am saddened that they account for the lion's share of what journalists wade through on a daily basis.

GDC provides happiness via contrast. For one week, news from the gaming world comes from people who make the create the games, rather than "the brand." Instead of hearing a Sony spokesperson spout a cliche line about how happy they are to work with Keita Takahashi, reporters tell stories about his philosophical approach to games. We listen to the genre's visionaries have real discussions about the direction of games, openly debating their differing views without being spirited away by a handler sent to make sure they tow the party line. GDC provides the journalist and the reader with a novel situation: a week when "gaming news" is not driven solely by new title releases and sales numbers. Even the people who make little to negative profit have a moment in the spotlight.

It is refreshing to see folks that can hardly contain how happy they are to be doing what they do. Be it spontaneous marriage proposals or enjoying the company of fellow writers, the week fosters a sense of community and warmth rarely seen throughout the year.

So why can't things be like this the other fifty one weeks a year? Is the PR machine truly necessary for quality games? Are journalists and critics so dangerous that companies need to wall off eccentric creators and mete out the generic company tag-lines? Do players really care more about sales numbers than design philosophies?

Of course, there may be something to that old adage "familiarity breeds contempt." Perhaps a world where developers and journalists have direct communication is world in which the two groups grow tired of each other. Could it be that the marketing tactics and PR lines are necessary to get us hyped about games we should not really be excited about? Would the conference itself be special, or even necessary, if its spirit was the norm, rather than the exception?

I prefer not to believe this. The excitement, enthusiasm, and downright happiness flowing out of the convention suggests to me we need to evaluate the industry's very structure. Without enormous hype machines, there may not be as much money for huge budget games, endless preview features, and ten-second sound bites. If it means more thoughtful discussions with developers, more time for reflection in between releases, the space for smaller, less profit driven developers to release games, and the development of a more inspired culture around video game writing, I argue the sacrifice is worth it.

Let's try to bring hang on to a little of the GDC spirit for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

EXP podcast #19: The OnLive Myth

The gaming internet sites were humming with excitement during the Game Developers Conference last week in sunny San Francisco. Upon one particular announcement, a mix of gleeful tittering and cries of consternation were audible across the bay, and a widespread internet discussion soon followed. The product announced was OnLive, a gaming service that purports to do away with hardware concerns by streaming your games over high-speed internet. Crowds gathered around the presentation like skeptics around a yeti corpse, wanting to believe in the mythical beast.

This week, Scott and I discuss OnLive as it relates to the curative properties of snake oil, urban ISP ruffians, scam artists, and the future of consumer participation in game consumption. Since we are drawing on a wider collection of news sources than normal, we will link some of the more interesting pieces in the show notes along with OnLives demonstration video. If you are curious about OnLive further, allow us to google that for you. Comments are encouraged via email on the right or in the comments section below. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- Do you think the time is right for a service like OnLive? Are people ready for another console competitor?
- Do you think the infrastructure exists for OnLive?
- Would you partake in this service or do you think the growing pains of expanding their content is too much?

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

Show Notes:

- Run time: 28 min 14 sec
- OnLive website with video.
- John Spinale talks to The Escapist about OnLive.
- Richard Leadbetter, of Erogamer, explains why OnLive can't possibly work.