Monday, November 30, 2009

Set Piece Cinema

Alfred Hitchcock was particularly fond of set pieces. He treated them as crescendos, eye-catching scenes built to demonstrate his virtuosity and break the viewer out of a trance. A properly paced film would include three of these "bumps," although Hitchcock enjoyed showing off more than average (I could consider Rope one long set piece).

Another informative definition comes from screen writer John August, who defines a film set piece as:

A scene or sequence with escalated stakes and production values, as appropriate to the genre. For instance, in an action film, a set-piece might be a helicopter chase amid skyscrapers. In a musical, a set-piece might be a roller-blade dance number. In a high-concept comedy, a set piece might find the claustrophobic hero on an increasingly crowded bus, until he can’t take it anymore. Done right, set-pieces are moments you remember weeks after seeing a movie.

While some conventions are followed, others are discarded to set the scene apart. Game conventions should be treated similarly, altering the experience for a particular purpose. But if we were to follow Hitchcock's suggestion of three bumps per film, a twelve hour videogame should include eight or more set pieces. While rare in older titles, Uncharted 2 teems with cinematic set pieces and is representative of what I hope is a larger trend in game design.
A post by Richard Terrell at Critical-Gaming Network from late last year discusses set pieces, drawing on, among other things, Super Mario Bros. Terrell rightly points to World 2-3 as a distinct Mario Bros. set piece. In this world, Mario's conventional platforming is performed while flying Cheep-Cheeps move in non-normative patterns that do not match traditional enemies. Although Mario Bros. succeeds partly because each world feels unique, this level is particularly memorable because it distinguishes itself from its surroundings.

Naughty Dog expertly intermingles unique set pieces into Uncharted 2 with comparatively high frequency. In an iconic scene revealed at E3 2009, Nathan battles a group of soldiers inside a hotel, taking cover behind pillars and furniture as normal. Suddenly an attack helicopter blasts the hotel, causing it to fall into a neighboring building. For a brief moment, the floor tilts dramatically and shooting enemies becomes more difficult. Finally, jarring the player's sense of control, Nathan leaps to safety.

The collapsing hotel scene is short, but its brevity is partly why it is so memorable. For a brief moment, along with visual changes, normative gameplay is slightly altered to create a new and unique experience. This strategy is repeated throughout the game, alternatively keeping the pace riveting and relaxing. Similar set pieces include a sliding platform in Shambala, a homicidal truck in an alleyway, a tank vs. village scenario, and a truck platforming sequence. Each of these scenes stand alone, sandwiched between normal game interaction.

The truck scene, and a similar train sequence, are longer set pieces that still succeed because they adhere to the 'brief alterations' rule. The train platforming scenario is a unique set piece itself, but it is also broken up into variations on the theme. At times, players must dodge oncoming obstacles, combat a helicopter on a moving vehicle, and snipe distant enemies while correcting for the curvature of the tracks. These longer set pieces follow Hitchcock's suggestion on a smaller scale while avoiding tedium.
While less adeptly paced, Modern Warfare 2 follows the trend of set piece design with its own variations on its gameplay conventions. A brief non-traditional segment of trench warfare in front of the White House is particularly memorable. A pitch black city suffering the effects of an electro-magnetic pulse creates another memorable set piece. While Modern Warfare 2 lets some of its levels drag on (Favela, Burger Town), it is indicative of a trend towards a level design that is built around these memorable set pieces.

These aforementioned set pieces are strictly linear scripted events, but they need not be. The quick downpours of Left 4 Dead 2's 'Heavy Rain' campaign is entirely controlled by the AI director. Nevertheless, its sudden alteration to existing conventions create for emergent behavior and memorable results. In a medium built upon small iterations of game conventions (not necessarily a bad thing), distinct crescendos and narrative "bumps" are powerful design tools to enliven a game and smooth its pacing. Uncharted 2 is one of the best paced games I have ever played, in no small part due to its exquisite pacing and fluid set piece integration. Building games around narrative and gameplay moments holds great potential. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thankful During Tough Times

Experience Points celebrates its second Thanksgiving at a time when the game industry (as well as most of the world) is experiencing hard times. Hardware sales are down, big companies are hemorrhaging jobs, and Bobby Kotick is standing by with a bag of salt to tend to our wounds. Even the most optimistic folks might be tempted to think that things are looking a bit bleak.

However, spurred on by Jorge's sentimentality, I started looking for silver linings amongst the metaphorical clouds. Although the industry is undergoing drastic changes, there are plenty of things for which to be thankful.

1. Gaming for Quarters

I don't even want to know how much money I have spent over the course of my life trying to complete Time Crisis. Naturally, the only thing I ever won was a sore ankle.

Today, thanks to devices like the iPhone and the rise of digitally distributed games, we are seeing an unprecedented amount of high-quality, low price games. Games like "Spider: The Legend of Bryce Manor" and "Flight Control" cost less than than a few rounds of Street Fighter ever did. Even more expensive games like PixelJunk Eden offer rich experiences that surpass those of many traditionally-priced games. And, thanks to the mad scientists over a Valve, even $60 games routinely see precipitous cuts.

While the same cannot be said in regards to food or gas, the value of the gaming-related dollar feels higher than ever before.

2. A Cornucopia of Content

I find it mind boggling that, despite the fact that many gamers don't even bother to finish games, developers still stuff their titles to the brim with optional content. Whether it is finding all of the hidden trinkets in Assassin's Creed, collecting star coins in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, or simply exploring the wasteland in Fallout 3, a gamer can easily spend dozens of hours on even the most linear games. For people on a budget, optional quests and challenges can keep the game fresh by offering ancillary goals in addition to the main story mode. For people that simply like exploring a game-world and testing its rules, non-essential content offer rewards whose only benefits are satisfaction and pride. After all, you don't really need to collect all the stars in a Super Mario Galaxy...unless you want to say to pay a visit to Luigi.

We are also lucky to have games that eschew a linear story and present us with virtually unlimited replay value. With some patience and imagination, a clever player can make each family in The Sims a unique episode unto itself. The randomized dungeons of Torchlight ensure variety for players who love a good dungeon crawl. At the strangest end of the spectrum, Noby Noby Boy and GIRL keep chugging along to beat of their insane drum. I still play the game to check in on their journey across the solar system (we've reached Jupiter!).

3. Feasting With Friends

As the overall community gamers continues to grow, games have changed to help foster a communal gaming. The move towards social gaming is only partially about "casual" games; both Farmville and Mario are part of a larger trend of making gaming a shared experience. I suspect that games like Gears of War and New Super Mario Bros. Wii would have been single-player affairs had they come out ten years ago. Now, they are designed to bring people together.

With the help of the Internet, even single-player experiences like Far Cry 2 and Mirror's Edge have sprouted communities. Today, even if you only have the time or money to play a couple of games, chances are that you will find a solid group of like-minded people who will help you turn the game into a larger experience. Whether it is comparing analysis, battling for high scores, or trading player-designed levels, being able to share ideas with other players is something to be thankful for.

This last point is especially meaningful for me, as there are some weeks when I actually spend more time writing and podcasting about games than I do actually playing them. While an acute lack of time and resources plays a part in this, thinking critically about games increases my appreciation for them. Over time, adopting the mindset that "the unexamined [game] is not worth [playing]," has made gaming increasingly rewarding.

And so I'm grateful that I have the privilege of working on Experience Points. Thanks to everyone for visiting the site, for making the whole thing such a blast, and for helping to keep me looking on the bright side of life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

EXP Podcast #53: Thanksgiving Leftovers

Continuing our holiday theme, Scott and I reached into our 'epic' spreadsheet of podcast topics to share with your our seasonal leftovers. From dark Disney characters to videogame weapons, these six stories are a little old, but still have a lot of flavor. Join us while we discuss persistent world narcissism, games of the decade, in-game trust, and old-school medallions. As always, you can find all these stories in the show notes. Consider the comments section below your 'home away from home,' and leave your thoughts freely.

Some discussion starters:

- How can lies and mistrust be implemented in a videogame?
- How do you feel about collector's editions? How do you flaunt your 'geek' pride?
- Epic Mickey: How much do you trust Warren Spector really?
- What are the most influential games of the decade?
- How do we implement persistent worlds in the most painless way possible?

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 36 sec
- "Games of the Decade: An Introduction" by Mitch Krpata, via Insult Swordfighting
- "Design of a Decade" by Steve Gaynor, via Fullbright
- Epic Mickey details via Game Informer
- Modern Warfare 2 Prestige Edition via Joystiq
- "Dear persistent worlds: you make me feel bad" by Andrew, via Charge Shot!!!
- "Inside the Video Game Weapon Replica Business" by Mike Fahey, via Kotaku
- "Fear and Mistrust in Videogames" by Scott Sharkey, via 1Up
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, November 23, 2009

Overdue Thanks

A bulbous mass of Tofurkey roast sits in my fridge, waiting to make my family uncomfortable with its presence at the dinner table. As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches here in the states, we are reminded, once again, of what we should be thankful for. In a year filled with some excellent gaming moments and an impressive selection of fall titles, my 'Thank You' list is full. In an effort to praise the under-appreciated and the over-looked, I will share with you just a few things that deserve our gratitude.

1. The Film Industry

The film industry and the videogame industry are siblings in a dysfunctional family. The well established, widely popular, and slightly vain older brother (film), casts the shadow under which videogames strive for unique recognition. With the games industry abandoning the Citizen Kane comparison, setting ourselves apart, the film industry tries to bring the siblings together for personal gain. Make no mistake, the Avatar game and the Prince of Persia movie were not made to bolster the games medium, but to extend movie studio profits into newly burgeoning markets. In this light, the film industry needs no praise.
However, a relationship does exist, at once legitimizing games as art and acting as a foil by which games distinguish themselves. Uncharted 2 for example, refines the linear game narrative, borrowing heavily from movie production, to create a well paced and amazing cinematic game like nothing else. While some may distance themselves from this particular brand of filmic storytelling, it still offers an experience unique to the interactive videogame medium.

Like Uncharted 2 borrows from film, District 9 seems to borrow from videogames. From the alien technology, to the weapon upgrades, to the movie's climax, D9 tells a story that could exist comfortably in your console. As I have mentioned before, its success holds valuable lessons for the games industry and should be recognized as a win for both mediums. We are an entertainment media family after all.

2. Foolish Expectations

Bombarded with common videogame tropes, gamers have grown accustomed to certain player behaviors. In general, it is safe to believe snipers will take high ground, bright colored ledges are meant to climb, and team mates with the same goal will use similar tactics. Developers and players can wisely exploit these expectations with both frustrating and entertaining results.

In competitive games, player ingenuity thrives when expectations are held too firmly. In League of Legends, a fleeing enemy at low health may be less victim and more bait. A clever snare or an ally lurking in the grass can spell certain death for the overly bold pursuer.
Even in cooperative games, molds are meant to be smashed. Although the co-op mode of New Super Mario Bros. Wii is ostensibly friendly, the game still keeps some of the potentially mean spirited mechanics. If a teammate needlessly takes a second mushroom, pick them up and throw them into lava - molten vengeance is immensely satisfying. After playing only a couple hours with friends, my reservoir of trust was completely depleted, even when we needed cooperation to survive. I should have expected nothing less.

3. Better Players.

The end of team deathmatch arrives and you are ranked lower than anyone. You were thoroughly trounced and humiliated, with your failure presented for all to see. Don't worry. We have all been there. Sometimes, your best is just not good enough. There always seems to be better players. Now some games are capitalizing on your humiliation and leveling the playing field in innovative ways.
Like Team Fortress 2 and its prequel before it, Modern Warfare 2 implements a 'Kill Cam' in its multiplayer games. Mysteriously murdered? Spend a few second watching a sniper blast you away and you will learn why jumping up and down in the bushes is a terrible idea. Spend enough time learning your enemies strategies, and the game will award you an accolade for it. If a history lessen is not enough, 'Death Streaks' allow unlucky players to copy the class and weapons loadout of their killer, giving them better odds against the better equipped.

Even a single-player campaign offers cross-player education. Demon Souls allows players to leave notes and hints for others. If a note reads "Beware flanking spiders," you might want to heed the advice. More than ever, we are learning from our fellow players, and we are all a little better for it.

There is one last thing I am thankful for, and that is you readers. Scott and I have been working on Experience Points for over a year now. While we are both happy to leave the birthday candles in the cabinet, we know you deserve recognition. I am sure I speak for both us when I say I am consistently awed by the entertaining and intelligent discourse you are all willing to have with us. Alright, enough with the sappy thoughts. Go eat some mashed potatoes, play some games, and let me know what you are thankful for.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Year of Balance

The holiday season snuck up on me this year. Before I could mentally prepare myself for the yearly onslaught of delicious temptations, visions of gravy, stuffing, fudge, and cookies have worked their way into my sights, and they will undoubtedly soon work their way into my stomach. If I'm not careful, I might inadvertently add to the old stereotype of the paunchy player.

However, in the fight against the caloric hordes, I have a weapon: The Wii Balance Board! The plucky little thing waltzed into our house around this time last year, bringing with it the unusual idea that one need not be rooted to the couch while playing games. I figure this is a good time to reflect on its usefulness: Should Wii Fit be added to my list of forgotten resolutions or has the device transformed me into the gaming equivalent of Jack LaLane?

The idea of a video game improving one's physique is an alien one, and even exercise experts are having trouble determining the Balance Board's effects. A recent article from Gamasutra reported that the American Council on Exercise found the intensity of Wii Fit's exercises to be "underwhelming." Somewhat predictably, the study found that "performing an actual exercise activity rather than Wii Fit's virtual approximation resulted in 'significantly higher' caloric expenditure." This conclusion is hard to argue with, but certain excerpts hint at some potential holes in the study.

For example, this passage was a bit strange:

"While we found that playing the Wii Fit burns twice as many calories as a sedentary video game," said ACE's chief science officer Cedric X. Bryant, "the outcome of the study suggests that Wii Sports, the Wii's suite of exergames that includes tennis, boxing, golf and bowling, is a better option and more capable of helping consumers meet minimum intensity guidelines for exercise."

Like commenter Joseph Vasquez II, I too have a hard time believing that Wii Fit burns only twice as many calories as simply sitting on the couch. Of course, there is always the possibility that I possess a Zen-like stillness while I play games, but I still find this dubious. Additionally, anyone that suggests that Wii Sports burns more calories than Wii Fit must have skipped the latter's Hula Hoop game. While Wii Fit will never compete with military boot camp, a properly constructed routine can yield Simmons-esque exertion.

This type of evaluation overlooks Wii Fit's strength: The game's health benefits stem partly from its exercises, but also from its game design. The animated balance board that greets the player is an expert in the ancient art of the guilt trip. The Balance Board seems to delight in doling out backhanded remarks about my attendance and snacking habits, which motivates me to think about fitness even when I go a week without playing Wii Fit. The combination of not wanting to see an upward curve on my weight graph and the pleasure I derive from thumbing my nose at that perky little jerk draws me back to the game on a regular basis. Wii Fit might not single-handedly sculpt me into an Adonis, but has been effective in cultivating a mindset. Whether it be counting calories, monitoring pounds, earning high scores in the games, or simply shutting up the Balance Board, Wii Fit makes exercise a game with clear, achievable goals.

Like a perfectly-timed swing in PixelJunk Eden or a flawless victory in Street Fighter, the BMI graph becomes part of a system to master and optimize. Every time I yearn for a candy bar, I think about my little plastic adversary nagging me and instead reach for an apple. If I have to wait for a podcast to download, I try to squeeze in a quick jog or some calisthenics, knowing that this might lead to just a few more hula hoop rotations. Wii Fit's ability to add a gaming layer on top of the traditional benefits of exercise exploits my habits for my ultimate benefit.

Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Wii Fit is how quickly it has defined the Balance Board's standard implementation. As has happened in the past, many other companies have followed Nintendo's lead regarding game design and hardware utilization. For the Balance Board, this has meant a number of subsequent workout games along with the occasional mini-game collection. Nintendo has proved to me that they can turn fitness into a game, but I am still waiting to see whether the Balance Board is more than essentially a single-use peripheral.

My early impressions of Wii Fit Plus give me hope for this, as some of the new games are surprisingly fun adaptations of traditional concepts, but I'll report back later with a more detailed review.

In the meantime, I am interested in what you all have done with the balance board. For those of you who own it: is it buckling under the weight of a year's worth of dust, or do your abs now rival those of Solid Snake? For those of you who do not own it: What is keeping you away? Does the Board's price versus its number of uses worry you? Of course, you may just be trying to avoid becoming fixated on the approval of an inanimate object. Although it lacks a face, I was sure the thing was looking down its nose at me the other day.

How satisfying it will be to rub my progress in that non-existent nose!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

EXP Podcast #52: The Difficulty with DLC

"Thank you Mario. But our princess is in another castle! I'll show you the way...for only $5!" This scenario might be an exaggerated nightmare, but the world of DLC is becoming an increasingly complicated one. The recently released Dragon Age: Origins launched with day-one premium content, some of which is actually offered by in-game NPCs. Unsurprisingly, many gamers vehemently disapproved of this and set out to form angry Internet mobs. This week, we discuss Sean "Elysium" Sands' plea for gamers to re-evaluate the merits of premium downloadable content. He makes a thought-provoking argument, suggesting that DLC may be the price we pay in order to perpetuate the existence of gaming as we know it. Do his ominous predictions have you reaching for your wallet? We invite you to jump in with your thoughts, free of charge.

Some discussion starters:

- What kind of DLC have you purchased? Do you have specific personal rules about what you buy?

- Do you believe that one game's DLC can subsidize other games, or will it just yield more DLC for that game?

- Is there an ethical component to DLC from an artistic or democratic standpoint?

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 52 sec
- "A Dirge for the Sinking Ship," by Sean "Elysium" Sands
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Sensationalist: In Defense of 'No Russian'

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.

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It also contains mature themes some might find inappropriate.

I would like to preface this piece acknowledging the amount of work already discussing Modern Warfare 2 and its 'No Russian' scene in particular. Forgive me for adding my own voice into what is already a cacophony of critical thought - considering the array of emotions this particular scene evokes, I feel it is necessary.

Here is a synopsis of the scene in Modern Warfare 2: Early in the game, the player controls Private First Class Joseph Allen, an Army Ranger tasked with going undercover for the terrorist Vladimir Makarov. In 'No Russian,' Allen joins Makarov and a few other terrorists as they walk into a crowded Russian airport and proceed to gun down hundreds of innocent civilians.
The scene is undoubtedly horrifying. Civilians scream and run in terror. They try to drag themselves to safety, clutching their side as they create a path of blood on the floor. Some civilians sit on the floor, bleeding out in front of you. One of Makarov's men stands on a balcony, slaughtering a crowd of people trapped a floor below. The terrorists show no mercy, and their demeanor of casual intent is incredibly unsettling. After the havoc, Allen and the terrorists fight their way through a group of police officers. In the end, Allen is betrayed and left to die. Russians finding his body amongst the massacre ultimately leads to an invasion of the US.


As expected, many have reacted to this scene with revulsion. In a piece by Kyle Orland of Crispy Gamer, Kyle details his reaction and ends by saying "that it is easily the most affecting scene I've taken part in in a video game so far, and for that alone it deserves careful attention." During her playthough, Cary of Play Like A Girl froze with "sheer, honest shock" at the scene's onset. Lono of the Sarcastic Gamer was physically disgusted and Tom Chick of Fidgit mirrors the initial thoughts of these writers when he calls 'No Russian' "unnecessary, cheap, and disgusting." Chick announces Modern Warfare 2 is our "new enfant terrible in town to embarrass and shame us all."

All of these emotions are completely legitimate. Killing civilians is supremely detestable, deplorable as an international war crime. Developers Infinity Ward knew exactly what sort of emotions this depiction of extreme violence would evoke, and they created this scene with the intent to stir up these very difficult sensations. To many, this feels like betrayal. Personally, I consider it a daring success in many ways, something the gaming community should respect even if they find it too unpalatable to admire.

There are a few arguments that have arisen frequently amongst critics that I want to address specifically.

1. Children will play this game.

This statement is undoubtedly true. Thanks to the "undiscerning parents" Cary mentions, or the ignorant grandfather Chick describes, a child who should not be playing war games in the first place will experience one of the most violent scenes ever depicted in a videogame. But this doesn't mean Infinity Ward has failed in their duties as developers. Nor does this imply content should be strategically censored from popular games.

Stephen Totilo of Kotaku recently appeared on Fox News Strategy Room discussing MW2. Totilo
aptly describes this 'undiscerning parent' as "subject to the expectations that videogames wouldn't go there." These are the symptoms of a consumer base with a naive understanding of videogames as toys. These are the expectations many of us have committed to changing in an effort to mature the medium. It is not morally consistent to relegate truly mature themes to indie titles where the most affected players are less likely to stray. Unless we want to make the argument MW2 should have been given the equivalent of an NC17 rating, we should stand by its M rating.

2. 'No Russian' is unnecessary

Lono most succinctly frames the gist of this claim: "Couldn’t there have been a half of a billion ways to show that Makarov was a bad guy within the game’s narrative, other than playing out a first person terrorist attack?"

There are two ways I want to address this statement. The first, is that the purpose of this scene was not only, or even primarily, to show the depth of Makarov's evil. The purpose was to show you how evil one might have to become to achieve good. During the loading screen introductions, General Shepherd describes Makarov to Pvt. Allen: "I ask much more of you now...He trades blood for money. He's your new best friend. You don't want to know what it's cost already to put you next to him. It will cost you a piece of yourself."
The confusing emotions 'No Russian' evokes, the desire to stop, the helplessness and sense of inevitability the linear scene creates, are exactly what the player is supposed to feel, because that is how Allen feels. Allen's confinement is elevated by the players own limitations. During 'No Russian', the player cannot jump or turn quickly, they cannot run ahead or bounce around the level like they are accustomed to. Even if the player chooses to shoot, they are more of a spectator to the violence than an instigator. This creates a level of unease that the player shares with Allen, which would have been less affective in another format.

One could still make the argument the scene was unnecessary for the larger storyline, that we need not share these emotions with Allen. This again becomes an issue o moral consistency. I value the freedom the medium gives to developers in allowing them to tell a story of their choosing. If the scene is too visceral for your personal tastes, Infinity War gives you every opportunity to skip that segment of their story. Certainly, some depictions of mature themes could be too much for myself, but that isn't to say I don't respect the developers addition to the medium. There is no reason to be ashamed of a medium willing to broach uncomfortable material well beyond your comfort level.

3. The ending makes the whole scene pointless

This is a variation on the above argument, most passionately discussed by Anthony Burch of Destructoid during his Rev Rant. Burch believes Allen's death eliminates the driving conflict of the scene - the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of the many. Not being able to kill the terrorists, and get treated to a depiction of "Chicago going up in a nuclear fire ball" is detrimental to the scenario we are supposed to experience. This is a misunderstanding of 'No Russian'.

The purpose of 'No Russian', in my interpretation, is not to show that A will lead to B, therefore having the means justify the ends. Rather, the purpose was to show how people make evil decisions based only on an order from the top and the hope that the ends will justify the means. Allen is meant to die unredeemed. The moment of "what have I done" succeeds so well because it infuriates Burch. This is to say nothing of the criticisms we can lay on General Shepherd for giving this order in the first place - a man who becomes the ultimate enemy and is clearly motivated by selfish interests. For Shepherd, the ends always justify the means. Pvt. Allen is a victim of that belief.

4. We should be allowed to act differently

This is one of Anthony's major criticisms, and is vaguely mentioned by many critics. Why, some ask, are we not allowed to shoot the Russians? The answer is relatively simple: Because Allen does not shoot the Russians. Burch has this to say on the author's control:

"Play the right way so you don't break our story [they say], and that's bullshit. Interactivity, by its very nature, implies some degree of choice. Which, again, we are free to have infringed upon so long as it feels its not actually being infringed upon... Don't fall be on that non-interactive story structure when you are rubbing my face in something which is horrible and provocative, and disturbing and is supposed to make me think and decide, and then just take away my ability to decide because I have to be a puppet in your bullshit story."
Authorial control is a treacherous subject. There are so many reasons player created emergent gameplay is a valuable tool in a developers toolkit. That being said, non-interactivity is also a tool we should not be so eager to critique when it fits our whim. The player is allowed to feel betrayed and angry and confused during 'No Russian', they are intended to feel that way. They are not, however, allowed to act on those feelings with Allen's agency.

Games are a conversation between player and developer. Some game designers are happy to give the player a great deal of control over the narrative elements, but this control is still defined by designer created boundaries. For Burch, role-playing as Allen was too much. He could not stay in the "narrative box" created by Infinity Ward because his priorities were different than the protagonist's. That is not an indictment of Burch or Infinity Ward, but a statement on the incompatibility of player and story designer for this particular scene. Skipping might not be optimum, but it is a conversation Infinity Ward is willing to engage in.


None of this is to say Modern Warfare 2 is a good or bad game, and by no means is 'No Russian' a perfect scene. I would say the first MW approached its content with more awareness and maturity than its sequel. However, MW2 succeeded in the area the Sensationalist series is designed around. For many, 'No Russian' evokes dark, hideous and unsettling emotions rare in videogames. For this reason alone, I welcome its presence in the medium.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Layton's Linearity and Halo's Heuristics

I recently played the Professor Layton games while also making my way through Halo. At first, it appeared to me that the games were structured similarly: Whether it is vanquishing the Covenant or locating the mysterious golden apple, both games present players with objectives that must be accomplished in order for them to progress to the next scripted event.

However, I soon began to wonder if Master Chief was upstaging Layton in his attempt to give my brain a workout. At the same time, I found myself becoming disengaged with Layton's gameplay and simply looking forward to the next story bit or cutscene . How was it that a game about space marines was more mentally engaging than one about a puzzle-loving professor? The answer exemplifies the pedagogical strengths of video games and demonstrates that linearity in games is a layered concept.

At the most basic level, Halo is a game that leads the player through a predetermined story with a variety of mandatory plot points. The genius of the game lies in the way players move between those pre-determined plot points.

The level design and enemy AI make Halo's gameplay highly dynamic. Halo is structured around sequences comprised of what Steve Gaynor has called "the basics of effective first person shooter encounter design." Instead of maze-like hallways, most of Halo's fighting takes place in environments with a variety of cover clustered in a circular pattern, laid out in such a way that the player can observe the environment and get a good sense for what tactics will help them succeed. Additionally, Halo's enemies' AI exhibits a wide range of behavior. Enemies rarely stand still and allow you to exchange fire; they will duck behind cover, charge you with clusters, or even retreat in fear.

The varied combat environments and unpredictable enemies give rise to dynamic, chaotic, and rarely replicable gameplay. While the overall game's structure is linear on the macro level, there are dynamic zones in between scripted events that allow the player to exercise their creativity and experience unique events. When Jorge and I were playing the game on co-op, one errant-grenade throw could potentially scrap a carefully laid plan and force us to come up with a new solution on the fly. If we got stuck, a change of tactics would cause us to experience a the level differently than the first time we attempted it.

Although the game has specific waypoints, the space between those rigid structures offers a significant amount of flexibility. Halo's possesses an immutable structure on the macro level while simultaneously rewarding the player's creativity; moment-to-moment events are often determined and shaped by the player's choices. A visual representation of Halo's campaign might look something like this:

On the macro level, Layton's structure is reminiscent of Halo. While there are many optional puzzles, progression is tied to certain mandatory challenges that divide the game into sections. Layton diverges from Halo by retaining this linearity during the intervening gameplay spaces. Regardless of how creative or clever the player is, there is only one path to success in Layton: guessing one predetermined answer.

If someone wanted to tweak their Halo experience by only using the pistol or by relying largely on melee fighting, they could so so while simultaneously remaining tethered to the game's overarching path. With Layton, there is little room for experimentation; to quote the Professor "Every puzzle has an answer." And by "an" he means "exactly one:" regardless of whether the player can think of a different way to stack chairs, retrieve a ball from a hole, or exploit vague language, the only route through the game is unvarying adherence to a single path. The game becomes doubly linear, as both the game's overall structure and the player's path become one and the same.

While this may be a valid game structure, it can often undercut the medium's strengths. When forced to follow a rigid path, the player loses much of their agency and finds themselves at the mercy of the designer's thought process. This might not be a problem depending on the game's readability and feedback system, but if things do get vague, the player may find themselves compelled to brute-force their way through obscure, single-solution problems.

Additionally, in order to keep things interesting, the game must then compensate for this lack of interaction by relying on the strength of its story, characters, and art direction. The Monkey Island and Zelda series show that this is possible, albeit extremely difficult. While all games require a certain suspension of disbelief, even the best puzzle and adventure games sometimes parlay this into a demand for passive acceptance of arbitrary, limiting systems. In this sense, games featuring a dual-linear structure share much in common with books and films: the story, sequence of events, and presentation are predetermined and largely static. Change can only be effected by interpretation and analysis after fact.

Instead of getting bogged down in the minutia of a puzzle, Halo presents the player with a general problem along with the tools to solve it. Most of the game boils down to "get to that door," but because the environments, enemies, and player behavior create dynamic spaces, I found myself looking at each level like a puzzle comprised of many interconnected parts. While they are often clever, the problems and solutions in Layton can also be pedantic. The approach to puzzles is overwhelmingly traditional, and most of the game would remain relatively intact if converted into book form.

Video games allow us to create laboratories dedicated to actively exploring dynamic situations in which the environment and objects become a puzzle. Layton's brain teasers provide a mental workout, but they seem ill-suited to the medium's unique pedagogical potential. Both Halo and Layton follow largely in the tradition of author-controlled narratives. However, Halo offers the opportunity to stray off that well-warn path, thereby opening up the possibilities for unique challenges and unexpected lessons.

For example: I learned that a Spartan can be just as thought-provoking as a Professor.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

EXP Podcast #51: Sizing Up Handhelds

Big chubby news came out of Nintendo recently: Their next DS version is imminent, and it is a much larger beast than we are used to. The DSi LL (DSi XL for the western market), is a whopper compared to its older sibling. Its screen is fully 93% larger than the original DSi. Take that poor eye sight. This week, Scott and I tackle this behemoth and discuss the current state of handhelds, what we've been playing on our itty-bitty screens, fat fingers, developing for limitations, and the elderly market. You can find more information, including nice photographs, in our show notes, and we encourage you to leave thoughts of any size in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:

- Aside from portability, what has attracted you most to handheld games?
- What limitations of the current handheld market are potentially empowering?
- What games have you been playing on a small scale, and what best use the smaller hardware?

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 mins 21 secs
- Nintendo Officially reveals the DSi LL, via Destructoid
- Music by Brad Sucks

Monday, November 9, 2009

In Search of Bond

What hero is more iconic, more internationally lauded as courage embodied in fine attire, than the MI6 man of action: Agent 007. Conceived over 50 years ago, with 22 films, several television appearances, and numerous comic book adaptations and videogames, James Bond stands alongside cowboys and knights as one of the most recognizable cultural creations of the western world. Despite his British origin, his success in the US and world wide is a testament to his easily consumable appeal.

I bring up the suave spy because I have just recently watched the Daniel Craig iterations of James Bond. Admittedly, I am a bit behind the curve on this modernized version - Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were released in 2006 and 2008 respectively - but my timing is fortuitous. My viewings of the new bond coincide with my playthrough of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, whose protagonist, Nathan Drake, shares many characteristics with the British agent. It has become increasingly apparent that Bond's persona permeates the world of videogame characters with startling frequency, but never completely.

It might be helpful to isolate some of Bond's characteristics, not all of which are favorable. First, Bond is classy and dapper in appearance. He is always well dressed and seldom found in disarray, even during the most harrowing of stunts. His demeanor matches his attire - Bond is nothing if not a suave gentleman, a man who tips well, comports himself with dignity in every public venue, and is never rude.

Ladies flock to Bond like flies to a bug-zapper; his chauvinism is rewarded with sexual attention. Yet he does not forget himself in the company of women - his job comes first. Bond is emotionally distant. His violent acts are brutally efficient. As Vesper Lynd remarks about Bond in Casino Royale, "there is something cold and ruthless" about him. He is also incredibly knowledgeable, accomplishing most tasks with ease. These last characteristics in particular are common place amongst our catalog of videogame adventurers.
Uncharted 2 is my first stop on my search for the most James Bond like videogame protagonist. Nathan Drake's knowledge of geography and ancient languages rivals that of Indiana Jones. Drake's uncanny ability of all types of weapons and his amazing climbing skills would make 007 proud - Bond once saved himself from a cliff's edge with his shoe laces. He's also got a charming demeanor, a thirst for adventure, and a knack for killing. However similar, Drake still lacks the fastidious gentlemanly appearance and emotional distance of Bond.

Perhaps the delightful Professor Layton is most akin to our genius foreign agent. The Professor is every bit a gentleman, maintaining a well pressed suit and top hat for all occasions. He is always mindful of ladies and is kind towards strangers. Layton is also a mysterious fellow, surprisingly adept with swords for a puzzling Professor or Archaeology. However, Layton is no ladies-man, nor is he a trained killer with the emotions of an ice sculpture. Like Bond, Layton strives for good, but he does not commit evil to attain it.
We will have to go back to the 12th century for our next Bond hero. Altaïr, of Assassin's Creed, matches the profile fairly well. A skilled assassin with stunning climbing skills, Altaïr masters his surroundings with Bond-like precision. For the majority of the game, his profession is of the utmost importance. His is an unquestioning killer of men; a task he undertakes with frightening resolve. He's also got a sparkling white get-up that he seems never to sully. But Altaïr is just not as easy to like. He also lacks the charm and masculine wiles to pursue and abandon women with Bond's regularity.

We can go to The Witcher's Geralt for his cavalier approach to women, but even he will be found wanting. Master Chief, the Prince of Persia, Mattias Nillson, Solid Snake, Squall, Sam Fisher, and even Faith are all Bond-like in some way, without encapsulating all of his characteristics. There are, of course, plenty of actual James Bond games -Activision currently holds the rights. GoldenEye 007 is the most well known title, but even this N64 game doesn't master the Bond persona.
James Bond is at once unique and completely trite. In cinema, he represents the embodiment of success, a protector of western values imbued with the charisma and aplomb we wish we could muster. He is the quintessential hero for a masculine and violent world. In videogames, he is a collection of the pre-established heroic qualities from which creators often cherry-pick.

Whether Bond indirectly inspires game creators, or they happen to pick these characteristics freel,y does not really matter. Regardless, if we were to collect all our adventuring protagonists and mix them into one being, James Bond just might pop out. A fact remains true for countless games: There is never any doubt we are playing a hero, an individual incapable of loss, who faces inhuman risks, whom we are encouraged to admire, even envy, and is willing to do almost anything to achieve his goal.

On an individual basis, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is when I look at a wider picture that I become nervous. Maybe it is because the movies are fresh in my mind, but I am seeing Bond everywhere in games. His cavalier approach to wanton slaughter, his emotionless attitude, his ravenous pursuit of a goal. These, among his other traits, are common place amongst game heroes. Unfortunately, I may be growing tired of this particular brand of heroics.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Mysterious Identity of Professor Layton

Logic puzzles and mathematical word problems have long assumed an irritating role in my life: In grade school, they were the odious bits of the classroom I had to take home with me. If I was unfortunate enough for my Mom to decide that I was "wasting" my summer in front of the TV playing video games, I was greeted by a notebook full of the blasted things.

More troublesome was the way puzzles were incorporated into standardized tests used to lump kids into intellectual groups. Sadly, this trend persisted through college and continues into graduate school. While not Professor Layton's fault, the gameplay is nevertheless made up of activities I most strongly associate with things that have historically prevented me from enjoying myself.

So why did I play through the games? After hearing so much about the clever puzzles and finely-crafted artwork, my curiosity simply got the best of me.

It should be noted that when I say I "played" through the games, what I really mean is that I took advantage of Hanah's superior aptitude and enjoyment. I would tackle a few puzzles, but after my inevitable rage-quit, I would contently look over her shoulder while voicing my only-occasionally-helpful suggestions.

This being said, it should not come as a surprise that I latched on to games' stories and characters as if they were some sort of animated, whimsical security blanket that could shield me from the MENSA-inspired barrage. I have grown particularly fascinated by Layton himself. For me, the character is far more of a mystery than any of the game's puzzles.

I quickly found Professor Layton to be a thoroughly authentic character. Paradoxically, this is largely due to the relatively small amount of back-story provided for him. We know that Layton somehow became a professor, a world-famous archaeologist, a masterful puzzle-solver, a strict adherent to some form of neo-chivalry, an accomplished swordsman, and the guardian of a young apprentice. What we do not know is how or why this all happened.

Instead of guiding the player through an origin story, the game introduces the Professor as a character whose existence predated their first play session. Layton already has an established worldview, set of characteristics, and even arch rival, all of which are illustrated through current events. Solving puzzles with Layton is akin to meeting someone on the job; the player gets to know him gradually, in the context of what he does best.

In one respect, Akihiro Hino and Level-5 have created a spiritual peer of Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and Nathan Drake. However, Layton's resemblance to these characters is juxtaposed by distinctly ambiguous characteristics that cast him as something more akin to a cultural chameleon.

Perhaps "golem" would be a more apt term for Layton? It was quite surprising to find a Japanese-created, English-themed character named Hershel. Yet, despite having a name strongly associated with a specific ethnoreligious group, the game never explains Layton's background. In comparison to many of the games' caricature-based inhabitants, Layton is a malleable lump of clay in the player's mind.

While his skin is light, is is not as pale as many of the WASPy folks who supply him with puzzles. Layton's physical features are exceedingly nondescript: aside from an unusually square jaw, his face has no stubble or recognizable quirks. A line for a mouth, a line for a nose, a line for each ear, and two dots for eyes thwart most attempts at establishing any definitive ethnicity.

Some studies have suggested that, in addition to eyes, eyebrows are crucial in helping us remember faces. Layton, with his extremely simple eyes and nearly non-existent eyebrows, is both an everyman and anonymous man. His appearance diverges from the many popular hyper-real, gratuitously sexual characters found in video games.

A visit to Nintendo's Professor Layton website demonstrates the careful balancing act Nintendo is performing with the game's marketing. The three live action commercials all focus on the female players and bill the title as "a puzzle solving action game." Professor Layton makes a brief appearance and his name is in the title, but the focus in these spots is set squarely on the player. The game is framed as one in which the hero is not only the player, but a non-stereotypical player. In order not to detract from her, Layton blends in to the background.

Thus, we are presented with a mystery: How can a lead character possess a complex backstory based on well-worn gender, cultural, and narrative tropes while still serving as an empty vessel for the player to fill with their own personality? Somehow, Layton is at once a character and an avatar.

When I was floating this idea to Hanah, I initially asked her about Layton's distinguishing characteristics. "He wears glasses, doesn't he?" she asked.

He doesn't, but she does. Very puzzling indeed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

EXP Podcast #50: In Search of Secrets

Invisible coin blocks, hidden passages within a level, and obscure collectible trinkets are just a few of the conventions often turn games into digital Easter egg hunts. However, in a time when large numbers of gamers never even bother to finish a game's main story mode, the reason behind the near-ubiquitous inclusion of in-game secrets is a mystery unto itself. This week, we use Andrew Vanden Bossche's recent GameSetWatch column as a starting point to discuss secrecy in games. How do deceitful children, James Bond, and avian harassment factor into the conversation? You're one click away from finding out. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments: do you crave concealed cash, or are you simply sick of sleuthing?

Some discussion starters:

- What sets your favorite examples of secrets apart from your least favorite examples?

- Are secrets that affect gameplay any more or less ethical than those that do not?

- In light of the Internet, what is the future of secrecy in games?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking 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: 31 min 37 sec
- "Design Diversions: 'It’s A Secret To Everyone'," by Andrew Vanden Bossche, via GamaSetWatch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Blame Game

There is no hostile environment like the community of a competitive online game. A noob's first dip into a pvp focused battlefield is like the first day of school, if the school's purpose was to turn children into battle-hardened space marines. Despite the dangers of swimming in the deep end, I have ventured with trepidation onto the fields of justice, joining the League of Legends. A game of strategy, a game of teamwork, a game where your own allies will tell you to die in a fire.

League of Legends (LoL) is a modernized offspring of Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a hugely competitive and popular Warcraft III mod. Riot Games is developing LoL and has incorporated Steve Feak and Steve Mesco in the development process, two minds behind DotA Allstars. The game is in open beta. I have enjoyed my time immensely, but there are others who may be scared off by the virulent criticism common in online gaming communities.

For someone with very little DotA experience, I have actually taken to League of Legends pretty quickly. The game is simpler than I had imagined. Each player in LoL is a "summoner," with their own persistent skill tree and game history. Each summoner calls forth "champions," each with a unique set of spells. These champions level-up throughout a game. They also earn gold to stock up on beneficial items.

These avatars are the driving force behind what is essentially a Real-Time Strategy game. Each side - with three to five players depending on the match type - accompany repetitively spawned groups of minions to assault defensive towers and eventually destroy their enemy's base. The basic idea is quite simple, but with almost forty different champions to choose from and a huge variety of items, actual gameplay can become very complicated.

There are many ways to fail, but when it comes to the team quips at the end of the game, there are usually one or two people who carry the blame. The "die in a fire" quote is real - though to be fair, the person was a pain. Uncouth remarks do not occur as often as they would in an FPS, but players do blame each other for a team's failure with startling frequency. For a person new to the game, LoL can be quite stressful.
A person who dies often is called a "feeder," because they feed enemy champions with bonus experience and gold. "We had a feeder" is a common rationalization for most losses. Without hesitation, a fundamentally team-based experience becomes about individual responsibility. This noob player, potentially criticized throughout the game, is the sole reason a game will go south. This is a drastic assumption and oversimplification of player behavior.

There are plenty of ways an individual or a team can lose a match of LoL. For example, some champions are better late-game than early-game combatants. Some champions are better "pushers" or "carriers" than others. Some are heavily item dependent, some work better in pairs, some are more easily ganked, some get few kills but provide excellent support. Poor team make-up can make or break a team, in which case each player is equally culpable.

However, even if we were to put blame on one person, to say one individual failed to learn their character and their role, the finger-pointing tactic is detrimental to all players. Applying blame does not foster improvement through education. Telling someone to go read a manual, while helpful to some extent, does not teach them some of the finer minutia of contextual gameplay. A team's responsibility is to find their shortcomings and compensate accordingly. This requires a level of cooperation beyond the norm.
Nels Anderson astutely points out game design's ability to alter player behavior, stating:

"it might be the case that we need to provide the context and reward for a specific type of behaviour and then find ways to attract different types of players. Some of the most beloved games (e.g. Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Mario) aren't successful because they support a great diversity of behaviours, but rather because their context and the behaviours they encourage are harmonious."

Some of Riot Game's design choices do foster cooperation and mend some of the troubles inflicting DotA. Players have access to bot games and practice games - though the matchmaking system and summoner experience system provide more incentive to play actual games over practice matches. Also, players cannot abandon a game easily. A player abandoning their game for a better one will find themselves automatically joining the same one they left. A vote to surrender a match requires an overwhelming majority. Players have every incentive to make the most of a bad game.

Cooperation, however, does not free us from blame. We want to have an easy out, a way to back up our gamer credibility by calling someone out. If someone else is at fault, then our own in-game behavior is vindicated. In a team-based competitive environment, this logic does not make sense. Developers could be somewhat culpable, or the gaming community at large. If a game is lost because of correctable errors, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.