Friday, January 29, 2010

I'm Looking Through You

In addition to a game, The Beatles: Rock Band aspires to be a shrine to the fab four and a role-playing exercise for people wishing to participate in the retelling of cultural myths. The game's story is a stylized presentation of the band's career. From the Cavern Club in 1963 to the psychedelic strawberry fields of the late 60s to the final rooftop concert at 3 Savile Row in 1969, the game enables to player to participate in the retelling of a cultural legend.

But what kind of legend is this? As I play the game, I grow continually more interested in the narrative and its relationship to historical events. More than once, I found myself thinking of one of my favorite films, which also deals with the line between truth and myth: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a Western that explores the utility of cultural myths and the morality of a noble lie. Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is an idealistic Eastern tenderfoot who comes to a town terrorized by a bandit named Liberty Valance. Tom Doniphon , played by John Wayne, is the only one who can stand up to Valance and repeatedly tries to prove to Stoddard that justice is better upheld by guns than by laws.

Stoddard eventually gives in to this logic and confronts Valance. Miraculously, he out-shoots Valance, becoming an instant hero.

Stoddard's feat propels him into a career as a politician and he uses this support to transform his life and improve the lives of others through public policy. He transforms the bleak Western wilderness into a garden.

However, this reputation was built on a lie:

The Beatles: Rock Band possesses a similar ethos to that of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. While the game is less about lies than it is about omitting certain facts, the final product is devoted to the legend of The Beatles, rather than The Beatles themselves.

The Rock Band version of The Beatles exist in a strange universe that is divorced from both historical and personal context. The four Beatles journey across a temporal dream-scape, creating music as they go, existing as a unit of pure imaginative energy. There are no digital versions of people like Yoko Ono, Brian Epstein, and Phil Spector. Their contributions, both positive and negative, are edited out of the game and the legend it helps us create.

The band's personal and musical transformation reflects the turbulence of the 1960s, but The Rock Band Beatles exist outside of history and its events. Playing the game is to venture into a world without Vietnam, a world in which "Helter Skelter" is scrubbed of its murderous associations, and where psychedelic art and creative experimentation are never aided by drugs. We can find "Day Tripper," in the game, but we cannot find the faintest whiff of pot or the tiniest tab of acid. Perhaps real-world Paul is bogarting it all?

In many ways, The Beatles: Rock Band evokes the squeaky-clean "kid-friendly" incarnation of the band that shows up in so many kids' albums. The digital Beatles we play are always a happy, smiling family, unencumbered by legal and creative differences. As the digital Beatles play "Come Together" we can recreate a scene of band unity that never happened: by the time the real Beatles sang "Come Together," they were already miles apart.

The game's story offers no hints at either the bloodshed or the bad blood that would plague the former band-mates after their breakup. Even after John Lennon's murder in 1980, the surviving members had not resolved their differences. In 1988, The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Paul declined to make an appearance, stating:

"After 20 years, the Beatles still have some business differences which I had hoped would have been settled by now. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, so I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them at a fake reunion."

At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard tells the truth about the duel with Liberty to a newspaper editor, knowing full well that his confession undermines his all of his life's achievements. The editor recognizes this as well, and burns the notes that his young reporter was taking. Stoddard expresses his surprise, confusion, and amusement that they are not going to run with the story. The editor replies that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In making The Beatles: Rock Band, I imagine Harmonix felt a bit like that newspaper editor. Of course, the task of obtaining permission from the various owners and estates of The Beatles is Herculean by itself. It is understandable that both the surviving members, their families, and the record companies are invested in recreating the Beatles in the most flattering (and profitable) way possible. But on top of that, there is the legend's sanctity to consider: How does one go about tearing down myths that define a culture?

Harmonix, like the newspaper editor, simply chooses not to. The ending cinematic is a perfect metaphor for the game: it is a testament to the reverent isolationism we impose on legends:

The very world around them is transformed into a wonderful fantasy, disconnected from the flow of time, and beyond human blemishes. It is a world where their creativity overpowers the dreariness of our world, a world that exists to inspire us with its ideals, rather than its veracity. It is a world in which Ransom Stoddard shot Liberty Valance, a world whose artificially constructed existence helps improve our own.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

EXP Podcast #62: Distributing the Future

We routinely talk about the impressive content within games, but, in today's market, the way in which we procure that content is equally striking. Digital distribution is changing long-standing traditions regarding how games are sold and played: an increasing number of both games and players are leaving discs and cartridges behind in favor of ones and zeroes. Inspired by Evan Stubbs' article on the future of digital distribution, we discuss some the potential benefits and drawbacks of what seems to be the inevitable move towards completely digital gaming. Whether you feel that this change will usher in a new era of economical convenience or a technological apocalyspe, feel free sound off in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What are your habits regarding digitally distributed games? Is there a certain reason you do or do not download games you could get on discs?

- How do you feel about pricing structures based on "segments" rather than as a function of time? What kinds of privacy issues arise?

- How soon, if ever, do you think games will go 100% digital?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 26 min 49 sec
- "The Future of Digital Distribution," by Evan Stubbs, via RedKingsDream
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Tragedy of Videogame Heroism

My friends are manipulable. They are easily duped, predictable, largely unquestioning and mostly acquiescent. When they dissent, they sell their favor for cheap gifts and memorabilia. Despite these tendencies, my allies in Dragon Age: Origins are the most realistic companions I have ever had. But this post is not about them. This post is about the hero who will never be like them, the protagonist of this world and many others.

Two weeks ago I criticized a few pet peeves I hoped the industry would abandon. One of these, the "Blank Slate" problem, I defined as the tendency for developers to create emotionally vapid non-characters with little or no personality. These beings attempt to encapsulate normative players by aiming for averages. The short-haired white male with no internal monologue tries so hard to satisfy everyone that he relates to no one. This might be an extreme example. All videogame heroes, however, Arkania included (my heroine of Dragon Age), show symptoms of the blank slate. They are all victims of player agency.

There came a moment in Dragon Age, after a touching scene with Alistair and Leliana, that I realized I genuinely cared for these characters - all but Sten to be exact. I have yet to finish the game and I am actually nervous about where the story will lead. The cast is so well realized, each with a rich personal history, that I am concerned one of them will die. My protagonist, however, stands out from the group. Her death would be upsetting, but also natural.
There are many little touches that add depth and realism to the cast of Dragon Age. While exploring the world, party members will share idle banter, discussing their experiences, opinions, and generally joking around. Mementos found scattered about Ferelden can be given as gifts. Alistair shares remorseful memories when given an old locket. Leliana shows similar gratitude upon receiving a particular flower. I can also probe my cohorts for more information. I can learn about their personal lives, past tribulations, and aspirations by asking questions. Arkania, however, cannot play a similar role for them. She is detached from reality.

All the party conversations are between fellow supporting characters. My protagonist never has a quick background chat with others. She is never given gifts, and therefor never shares personal details to her friends. Occasionally, someone will ask my protagonist a question, but it is very rare. When the opportunity is given, answers are often short and limited in scope. I chose to play as a Dalish Elf, and many of my available responses revolve around this particular aspect of my character. Wynn, the party member who is most proactive towards Arkania, seems satisfied with curt answers to genuinely intriguing questions. The opportunity to tell a compelling personal history, one I did not experience in-game, is squandered.
Countless videogame heroes and heroines suffer the fate of the playable character. Story elements that players do not actually interact with are largely abandoned. The role of the videogame hero is to enact their agency upon the environment, not immerse themselves within it. Games with silent protagonists succeed not because the lead characters are so compelling, but because support characters and the worlds they inhabit are emphasized instead.

Our protagonists are different because we play them. Although I can control my entire party in Dragon Age, there is no doubt Arkania is my medium into this world. Accordingly, she is altered to suit my needs. Her dialogue decisions, for example, are not affected by past choices. They always offer uncharacteristically radical options, in case my gaming whims change suddenly and I want to become an evil character. She cannot inhabit the world the way all her friends can.
In this way, videogame heroes are very much like the tragic heroes of Western cinema, unable to live in the world they fight to protect. Admittedly, this is a drastic reading of the avatar within narrative games, but I think it works. As players, enacting our agency within a system of rules, we will never see the protagonist the way we see the supporting cast. Thus, our heroes and heroines are forever outsiders. They are different because they are player-controlled, and we design them intentionally to enact player will. Even a game like Dragon Age, with commendable writing and voice work, inherently shows the symptoms of blank slate character design.

All games that seek to tell a story must deal with this narrative chasm in some way. Interestingly, the protagonist of Braid is a hero who becomes villainous, forever separated from his goal by his blind pursuit. The game unwittingly exploits this narrative conundrum. Other games may cleverly circumvent the tragedy of videogame heroism, but they are rare. For most of our champion protagonists, past and present, their fate is sealed. Even the most realized world they will never call home.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Day in the Life

A couple months ago, I made my first foray into the land of note-highways and plastic instruments. Like everyone else, I played Rock Band and Guitar Hero at numerous parties and enjoyed the experience. However, I decided to put off actually owning the game and its gear until I could play songs off of either Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Led Zeppelin IV, or the The Chronic.

Like many others, I was thrilled when The Beatles: Rock Band was announced and I am in no way surprised that I like it. What did surprise me was the game's capacity to provoke strong feelings of escapism. By combining a very narrow dynamic gameplay zone with The Beatles' iconic artistic legacy, the Beatles: Rock Band is more about letting yourself inhabit another person in another time.

While games can serve as methods to indulge in escapist fantasies, I rarely find it easy to lose myself in a game world. Part of this is the interface: As cheesy as the plastic instruments are, they simulate the onscreen action more directly than most traditional controller or mouse and keyboard setups. The Xbox 360 control is a far cry from MarcusFenix's chainsaw gun, but the generic Rock Band guitar actually resembles the object that could create the on-screen action.

This action centers around an extremely strict interpretation of The Beatles' music. Rhythm games as a genre are already some of the least forgiving in terms of accommodating player exploration. The only way to play Rock Band is do exactly what the game says: The gameplay path exists on a narrow line between a song's beginning and end. By removing the optional drum fills and guitar solos found in standard Rock Band games, The Beatles: Rock Band further constricts the player's freedom. This game is not about the player discovering their own unique talents, it is about trying to emulate and role play The Beatles' talent. The game is essentially aBeatle simulator.

The game's real accomplishment is tricking you into believing the simulation. Aping the motions of playing an instrument and following the directions on the screen is linked to music whose beauty overwhelms the absurdity of the concept. Although the game is basically a glitzy version of "Simon says," the carefully crafted note paths move my hands in a way that somehow feels authentic. For a moment, I feel like I could actually be Paul McCartney. Maybe if I just practiced a bit more, I could even write a song...

Of course, from a musical perspective, catching up to Paul is effectively impossible. By the time he was my age, Sgt. Pepper had been released, and while I am proud of Experience Points, I'm not ready to put it in quite the same category.

Even if I were complete the Malcolm Gladwell-approved 10,000 hours of training required to master a skill, I would fall victim to the cruel realities of space and time. I am neither in Liverpool nor the 1960s, and no amount of practice or talent could replicate the magic The Beatles had. Listening to The Beatles, one hears things that would both upend popular music and lead to its ultimate fragmentation. Playing The Beatles: Rock Band is about escaping to a time in which a band's "Sgt. Pepper's" album was actually Sgt. Pepper's. The Beatles could only exist because there had been no Beatles before them.

Today, Paul and Ringo exist separately from the legends birthed in the 1960s. In terms of continued influence and relevance, they cannot compete with the echoes of themselves, and so join the rest of the mortal world. No one, not even Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, can be "Paul" and "Ringo" as the world knew them; those people don't exist anymore. To hearken back to those days is to assume an imposture: the world has changed and that reality exists only as a legend that can be emulated, not recreated. We must rely on simulations to do so.

The Beatles: Rock Band allows us to escape our reality and take part in the re-telling of these legends. The game lets us taste the grand, idealized, beautiful splendor of a cultural myth. When playing the game, I am flooded by the memories of "discovering" the band as teenager and getting goosebumps as I realized that human beings could create such things.

The Beatles: Rock Band is not a game about the individual player's creativity; the strict adherence to the official versions of songs and the strongly defined artwork leave little room for spontaneity. Instead, the game offers a wondrous form of escapism. While playing, I experience my own history with the music while simultaneously assuming the mythic roles associated with the surrounding legends. For a fleeting moment, it is "my" guitar that gently weeps.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

EXP Podcast #61: The Dubious Health of the JRPG

Few genres have seen a rise and fall like the once illustrious Japanese RPG. There still exists a strong core group of players dedicated to the JRPG, but could the poor showing of Japanese titles in 2009 be the death knell for a dying art form? Jeff Fleming think so. This week on the EXP Podcast, inspired by his recent opinion piece, Scott and I visit to the local genre hospital and discuss the health of JRPGs, DS confinement, teen angst, and the 'unicorn magic' of operatic storytelling. As always, you can find the original article in the show notes and we highly encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- How do you define a JRPG? Do you consider is a distinct sub-genre with a value all its own?

- Have Westerb RPGs superseded JRPGs? Do they satisfy all the sensations the Japanese RPG once provided in the days of yore? Will we miss the fantastical?

- Have we matured past JRPGs or are they just becoming what they always should have been, a niche market sub-genre?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 27 min 52 sec
- "The Last Days of the Japanese RPG?" by Jeff Fleming via GameSetWatch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Sensationalist: Worry in 'Silent Hill Shattered Memories'

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.

Spoiler Pirate says "Yarrr! There be spoilers ahead!

Published by Konami and developed by Climax Studios, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a marked departure from the franchise built on fear. Although Shattered Memories has its fair share of jump cuts and sudden shrieks, its purpose is slightly more benign. While the elements that do seek to terrify are every bit as interesting as the complete package, the sensation I am most interested in is worry. The driving force, the root of the game's tension, and the feeling most necessary to evoke, is concern.

Few games so explicitly attempt to instill anxiety within its players. The primary method for fomenting worry in players is to attach a certain level of doubt to in-game elements. Nothing builds tension quite like in-game uncertainty. Resident Evil 5 is one of many titles that distress players by limiting ammunition. A lack of bullets during a battle is frustrating, but a shorter supply of bullets after said battle is even more disconcerting. Making players feel weak, incapable, and unsure of themselves builds tension and makes them worry about the next inevitable confrontation.

Konami ran with this idea and made a bold decision to remove combat from Shattered Memories entirely. The protagonist Harry Mason, controlled in a pseudo-third-person manner, searches for the whereabouts of his daughter Cheryl by poking around the town of Silent Hill. The game consists of exploration and very basic puzzle solving, interspersed with "nightmare" scenarios in which Harry flees a cadre of faceless and ever-persistent monsters eager to tackle Harry into oblivion.
Without means to combat these flayed creatures, the moments preceding a nightmare evoke strong sensations of uneasiness. Nightmares often accompany narrative twists and are introduced by the world, and its occupants, turning into ice. The environment becomes a dark and confusing maze. Paths are marked in bright blue, but can easily lead the player in circles. The controller emits static notifying the player of nearby monsters and potentially providing a way to orient one's self. This is only occasionally helpful however, merely postponing the inevitable. Harry can only hide from the hideous creatures for so long. Eventually, he must pass by them and find safety. While these segments can grow tedious, they do successfully evoke worry and distress by exploiting weakness and uncertainty.

The game hinges on a different focus of concern entirely. Harry's distress over his missing daughter should be our distress. In order to buy Harry's pursuit of his daughter despite insane circumstances, we must believe his worry is genuine. The game seeks to evoke worry and convey Harry's convictions primarily through repetition.

The psychiatric profiling that takes place during Shattered Memories alters the story slightly, potentially changing Harry's behavior and attitude. His concern for Cheryl, however, is unerring. Harry tells every character about his daughter without hesitation. Of the people he can call on the phone, several of them are told about his plight whether or not they can be of any help. Harry is ever only slightly distracted. Despite his bizarre circumstances and the pleas of others, he always continues on, often irrationally.
There are also reminders of Cheryl's presence. The shadowy specter of a young girl, presumably Cheryl, is spotted on several occasions. Mementos and phone messages with a child's voice remind Mason, and the player, of Cheryl's predicament. On a few occasions, Harry talks to Cheryl on the phone. These moments are accompanied by static, a voice laden with panic or sadness, and serve only to drive Harry and the player forward. Bolstered by decent voice work, and cryptic and unsettling allusions to Cheryl scattered throughout Silent Hill, Harry Mason's concern for his daughter becomes our own.

There are several moments during Shattered Memories that took my by surprise and made me reassess my interpretation of the game. In one of these scenes, Harry calls his daughter only to have a grown woman answer the phone. Openly hostile towards him, she tells Harry that Cheryl does not want to speak to him. As the game progresses, these bizarre moments become more frequent. With expert fluidity, the focus of concern shifts from Cheryl to Harry Mason himself. What if the psychiatrist is treating Harry for schizophrenia? What if Harry actually killed his daughter? What if she does not exist at all? Clearly the world is not right. What if, in his heroic pursuit, Harry hurts himself or succumbs to madness completely?

There is something to say for good characterization. While Shattered Memories is far from perfect, the characters feel genuine and so do their concerns. Despite Cheryl's absence, she feels ever present and that much more realistic. While I will not reveal the climactic narrative twist, the focus of concern moving from Cheryl to Harry is repeated and the conclusion is rewarding. Shattered Memories builds tension by asking the player to worry about nightmarish creatures and missing family members. Despite its unique take on the franchise, Shattered Memories is just as emotionally evocative as its predecessors.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mise-En-Scene and The "Feel" of Ambiance

I often joke that once I get into a game, all graphical detail is scrubbed away by my subconscious mind, leaving only a bunch of wire-frame models, gridded lines, and hit boxes. However, this is an overstatement, as I cannot honestly argue that Bioshock would have been as engrossing without the world of Rapture.

Jorge makes a compelling argument that a game's ambiance is an integral part of its immersive potential. In an attempt to explore how ambiance and gameplay interact, I latched on to the "mise-en-scene" idea Simon Ferrari introduced in the comments of Jorge's post. Having read little film and theater theory, I hastily tried to get a handle on what mise-en-scene actually is: I consulted the modern arbiter of knowledge/bar-bet settler, I perused material from esteemed academic institutions, and I even asked someone who makes real, American money working in live theater. It seems that (depending on who you ask) mise-en-scene is pretty much everything: lighting, set dressing, camera angles, and even actors themselves have been called mise-en-scene. While such a broad definition is daunting, these different meanings share a specific trait useful in exploring how the concept functions in video games.

In theater and film, the audience interacts with mise-en-scene visually. As long as something is visually convincing, the audience has little recourse but to accept it as true. It is likely that we have all seen a play in which a set of dinner plates on stage were glued to the table on which they sat, but as audience members, we have no way to test this theory. Video games are unique in that the audience member becomes a player who has the ability to investigate the elements of a scene. In a video game, we could attempt to move those dinner plates, which makes the games a difficult medium in which to create a believable world.

In order to successfully foster ambiance, a game's mise-en-scene must successfully complement its ludic elements. Because games require interaction, objects and art must serve both narrative and gameplay themes. This does not necessarily mean that every iota of on-screen material needs to be interactive, but I would argue that everything that appears before the player should agree with both narrative and ludic themes. In order to illustrate this, I will suggest one poor, one mediocre, and one outstanding example of how how mise-en-scene can foster an immersive ambiance.

The Poor: Geist

As I have previously written, Geist is a game that tragically fails to execute its clever ideas. The player controls a character with the ability to possess animals, objects, and people in order to carry out his mission. Unfortunately, the game's ambiance suffers because, despite the fact that game is littered with objects and people, the player can only possess a very limited number of them.

The game's mise-en-scene resembles that of a Star Trek episode: while that priceless Romulan vase might look like a sweet piece of space antiquity, interactive inspection reveals that it is from the planet Ikea. Similarly, Geist's objects are an illusion: only arbitrarily chosen interactive ones further the ludic theme of posession; the remainder are hollow set pieces.

The Mediocre: Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2's set pieces do a better job of complementing both the game's ludic and narrative themes. As Drake, the player controlls a jet-setting treasure hunter who, while skilled, is imperfect. Drake journeys to exciting locales and fights off waves of enemies while at the same expressing awe and acquiring injuries that make him relatable as human being. Whether it the clutter of a bombed out village, the dreariness of an underground temple, or the excellent acting performances, the game's mise-en-scene is a boon to the story.

However, Uncharted 2's gameplay does not mirror the its exotic presentation. Whether Drake is clinging to the side of train, the lip of a canyon, or the wall of an icy cave, his in game movements and control stay constant. While the graphics suggest that some ledges are slippery and icy while others are sturdy concrete, the consistent character movement reveals the graphics to be what they truly are: set dressing.

In practice, the player and the game's dressing interact in very limited ways. Despite being the type of guy who would use anything and everything around him to his advantage in battle, all Drake ever touches are guns and gas canisters. There is little difference between taking cover behind a wooden door and a concrete wall. Despite the game's lush appearance, only very specific ledges and platforms are available for traversal. Most climbing sections are highly directed sequences with only one possible solution. Uncharted's mise-en-scene is perhaps the best looking thing to ever be seen in a video game, but its interactivity does little to complement Drake's humanity in either a narrative and ludic sense.

The Great: Portal

Portal's presentation is decidedly more minimalist than either of the aforementioned examples. Despite this, its mise-en-scene successfully complements and unifies its story and gameplay to create a unified ambiance.

To play Portal is to re-think nature's laws, as success is looking at a wall and seeing a path rather than an obstruction. The game's stark surfaces encourage the player to see past the clutter they inhabit in their daily lives; the walls are beautiful not because they are adorned by ornaments, but because they represent creative potential. Although there are not many things to pick up in the Aperture lab, nearly everything the player sees can be affected by their action. Portal's entire environment is subject to investigation, and while the action of picking up a box or computer monitor is often pointless, this dynamic reinforces the ludic theme of experimentation.

In terms of the story, the game's sterile, minimalistic art style augments Chell's slow, maddening waltz with GlaDOS. Like GlaDOS herself, the environment begins as an ultra-sterile testament to rationality. As the plot progresses, clues to what is going on are conveyed through the mise-en-scene: Be it the increasingly absurd challenge rooms, the sense of dread communicated through small blemishes and graffiti, or the degeneration of GlaDOS herself, the game's setting suggests that everything the player knows is being subverted, just as the gameplay does.

The interactive nature of the video games demands that another conceptual layer be added to the idea of ambiance. For a game to exude a certain "feel," its mise-en-scene must both look the part and also work in harmony with the gameplay. Successful ambiance is the melding of both both a metaphorical and literal "feel."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

EXP Podcast #60: Playing With Characters

Put on your robes and wizard hats folks: it's time to do some role-playing. Whether you are playing as a knight, a space marine, or a rogue treasure hunter, video games give the player an opportunity to assume an identity different from their own. However, the increasing complexity of RPGs as well as the inclusion of sophisticated characters in non-RPG games can lead to a conflict between the player and the game: What happens when the player wants to do something that their character would never dream of? Grayson Davis from Beeps and Boops raised this question, inspiring us to explore some possible answers. This is a complicated issue and one that is likely highly influenced by personal taste, so feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- When playing a game, do you role-play your character? How does this affect your play experience?

- What is the balance between providing individual experiences based on specific characters versus ensuring players see all the game has to offer?

- Are there certain games that you feel walk this line particularly well? Are there games in which role-playing actually decreases your enjoyment?

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 32 sec
- "The Player's Role," by Grayson Davis, via Beeps and Boops
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 11, 2010

Past Peeves

We are two weeks into 2010, but this past year still intrigues me. There are some excellent games back there, some of which I still eagerly await to play. In just a few weeks Mass Effect 2 will be released, followed by a glut of titles that will turn my attention away from the gems of yesteryear. I will usher in these new moments with some antagonistic reflections. Let me take one last look into 2009 and answer the question Scott posed at the end of his New Year's post: What are you glad we are leaving behind? Here are a few things that popped up, time and again, in even the best games of 2009, that I hope do not make an appearance this year.

Mechanical Inequality

When I play a video game, I am agreeing to explore a set of rules put forth by the developer. There is a reasonable expectation that this set of rules follows its own internal logic, and is fair and balanced. When game mechanics deviate from these expectations arbitrarily, they fuel frustration and deliver a steaming pile of dissonance. The most recent example I have encountered has left numerous players flabbergasted. In Assassin's Creed 2, why can no one in Italy swim but Ezio?
This is not a game ruining flaw, the ambiance of the game more than makes up for it, but still, the high rate of drowning in Renaissance Italy is absurd. Sure, there is very likely an explanation that involves technical limitations and budget restraints, but would that be a reasonable excuse? Are frequent drownings - on one occasion causing the death of allies - worth the assassin's new-found ability to swim? If constraints were so severe that NPCs would drown the moment they touched water, I would expect the developer to seriously reconsider setting a large portion of the game in Venice, a city literally sinking into the Mediterranean Sea.

Other offenders include Resident Evil 5 and Call of Juarez. The jerky control scheme in RE5 consistently infuriates me, yet those undead hordes move with a deadly grace far beyond what their rotting musculature should allow. While CoJ handles fine, the frequent duels with shockingly prescient opponents turn a classic Western climax into an insufferable pain. Mechanical inequality is sloppy at best, and particularly offensive considering how apparent these flaws become over time.

The Blank Slate

Like the judges of Britain's Got Talent, I am a big fan of diversity. I would love to see more non-normative characters in games. Though I am a person of color myself, if a character is compelling enough, I usually relate to a normative protagonist easily. These profile tropes are more egregious when these protagonists lack character. Unfortunately, the number of emotionless stereotypes populating the medium in 2009 has been overwhelming. The ranks of short-haired white-males with stern appearances and vapid behaviors have grown too plentiful. In their ranks I include Ezio of Assassin's Creed 2, Cole of inFamous, Alex of Prototype, and Alec from Red Faction: Guerrilla, just to name a few.
There worst trait is not their race, but there blank slate nature. These characters are emotionally empty. They reveal little about themselves and show little evidence of having their own motivations beyond "accomplish this next goal." They commit their actions with no self-reflection, at best showing inconsistent remorse over how many people they have killed. The same can be said for numerous NPCs with little to no personality. As Scott has mentioned on numerous occasions, games like Uncharted 2, Dragon Age: Origins, and Left 4 Dead 2, put these games to shame with their complex and more diverse set of characters. Unless developers are self-aware and tactfully making a statement about the medium, there is no excuse for worlds populated by vacuous automatons.

Artificial Unintelligence

I understand developers - and mad scientists - have been struggling with artificial intelligence for decades. Creating realistic behaviors for non-player characters is a daunting and arduous task. That being said, we all recognize when NPCs act with glaring stupidity. Most of the time, this idiocy manifests in the background. The civilians of Prototype, for example, run around in disaster sites with chaotic abandon. They exhibit no sense of purpose, no realistic desire to flee to safety. The same can be said of civilians in Assassin's Creed 2, who quickly forget about witnessing a murder and continue their perpetual roaming of the city
The worst offenders, however, are those we rely on. Whichever brother one might play in Call of Juarez, for example, will inevitably be dragged down by the lunacy of the other. Even Dragon Age, a game I am enjoying immensely right now, is guilty of poor party behavior. While I like the complexity of the tactics slot mechanics, the fact early game allies lack basic combat logic is absurd. Forcing players to invest in more tactics slots, and therefor better AI, is a backwards design decision players should not have to worry about.

2010 will not be the year of miracles. There will be more head-shaven dolts rampaging about inconsistent and unfair worlds. Yet, a short ineffective rant about a year of flaws can be healthy. It allows me to temper my optimism for this year's titles, while also appreciating the efforts of those who seek to enliven the medium and learn from past mistakes. With my aggravations cleared out, I am open for all the successes and failures the future holds.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Uncharted 2, Avatar, and Mistaken Mediums

This post contains spoilers for both Avatar and Uncharted 2.

Sometimes, the Fates conspire to bring us exactly what we need, even if it is not what we want. This was the case last weekend, when I played Uncharted 2 and saw Avatar.

Both works are profoundly flawed for a variety of reasons. I already got into a huff on Twitter about the colonial wet dream that is Avatar, and those who listened to this week's podcast heard me call Uncharted 2 the most dangerous game in recent memory. I'll offer a more detailed critique of Uncharted 2 in a subsequent post. For now, I want to expand on a problem that Avatar and Uncharted 2 share.

While technically and artistically impressive, both works are hampered by the same basic mistake: both works picked the wrong medium for what they are trying to accomplish.

Avatar strives to convey being in both a foreign environment and a foreign body. The world of Pandora is full of mysterious, wonderful, and terrifying flora and fauna, all of it rendered with a level of realism that facilitates the viewer's suspension of disbelief. The viewer enters this world vicariously through the experiences of a man who in turn experiences Pandora by inhabiting the body of another species.

Putting aside the morally-questionable action of cloning biological beings in order to use them as tools, in both name and function, these Avatars are used exactly the way most video game characters are used. Since the earliest days of gaming, players have been inhabiting virtual avatars in order to explore foreign lands. Our avatars give us the ability to survive in dangerous environments, to gain inhuman powers that we could only dream of possessing, and let us live out fantasies of interacting with people and worlds that would be unavailable to us otherwise. Like us, Jake Sully uses his avatar to escape both the figurative and literal confines of his world to experience an otherwise impossible existence.

The audience is forced to utilize Sully as a passive, limited Avatar through which to vicariously experience the film's world. Why not cut out the middle man? One of the film's main themes is that understanding a foreign world is only attained through direct interaction. By transforming a passive viewer into an active player, Avatar: The Game (the hypothetical one I just created, not the licensed movie tie-in currently for sale) would allow the viewer to experience Pandora's geographic and social landscape on a much deeper, personal level than the movie conveys.

In one scene, Sully, in his Avatar body, encounters human-size flowers that instantly retract into their bulbs at the slightest touch. While startling at first, he becomes amused and begins playing with him, only to inadvertently reveal a large angry, beast hiding behind their cover. This sequence, based on curiosity and the unexpected consequences of personal action would have worked exquisitely in a game: Not only would the player be experiencing the surprise, they would be the one who set it in motion.

While by no means perfect, games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect exemplify the ways in which virtual avatars and dynamic stories create nuanced, layered stories. By giving the player options in crafting their own avatar and choices as to how to conduct themselves in a foreign world, an Avatar video game could easily surpass the film's plot. Affording the player agency through character-creation and branching plot options could easily transcend the insipid Pocahontas myth that the film offers.

Superficially, Uncharted 2 appears to synthesize the agency found in video games with the grand set pieces and charismatic characters found in Hollywood films. To its credit, Uncharted 2's visual magnificence and character performances outshine quite a few games and movies. Initially, Uncharted 2 appears to be the perfect melding of film and games, however, its filmic veneer holds not the core of a game, but rather a film that is a captive of the video game medium.

While Uncharted 2 affords its players (or viewers) more agency than a film, the game obstinately forces the player through what is best called a "screenplay." The opening gameplay sequence in which Drake breaks into a museum is designated as a "stealth level," in which being detected means automatic failure and a mandatory restart. Clearly, Drake has enough wits and combat training to disable a group of thugs non-lethally, but this is not what the game wants you to experience. Instead of implementing a functional alert and cool-down system (something that has been possible at least since 1998's Metal Gear Solid), the game forces the player to experience the scene exactly as it was written.

This focus on linear, single-outcome scenarios crops up repeatedly throughout the game. At key points, Drake is given unlimited ammo with which to fend off specific enemies. This choice clashes harshly with the gameplay, which is focused on keeping a watchful eye on both enemies and the ammo supplies. The necessity of unlimited ammo during a Yeti attack betrays the scene's purpose: The encounter is not connected to exploring gameplay dynamics, it is episode meant to showcase a Yeti. Running out of ammo was not in the "script" for Drake, and thus must not be allowed to happen.

At times, the player is sharply punished for trying to make their mark on the screenplay. After the train crash, Drake must make his way to the far point of a circular arena patrolled by guards. Personally, since Drake was injured and outnumbered, I thought it smart to sneak past the guards and quietly scramble up the cliff face, leaving them none the wiser. My audacity was punished by a contrived auto-death in which enemies were magically teleported behind Drake to gun him down instantly. Thinking that I had made some tactical mistake, I proceeded to replay the same scenario two more times with identical results. Ultimately, I realized what the true problem was: I was attempting to subvert the game's script, and being punished for doing so. The one and only way to deal with that situation was to mow down a dozen enemies, and I was ultimately fed down the one true path as surely as a roll of film is fed into a projector.

When Uncharted 2 gives the player control, it runs the risk of straying from its strengths. Uncharted 2 is a post-Quentin Tarantino response to Indiana Jones: Drake is a hero who indulges in both witty repartee and self-aware meta-comments; he is a struggling everyman and a sociopathic killer; he walks the line between affable bumbler and ruthless professional. The game features lush-looking environments and textured characters, but does so by enforcing the rigidity of film onto a medium based on malleability.

It is nearly impossible to craft a personal Drake who occasionally makes a false jump: the game will not let the player make an imperfect leap from one climbing point to another. Attempting to make a false jump while hanging over a precipice results in harmless hop rather than a deadly drop because said drop would not fit the story the game is trying to tell. Drake is only a bumbler when the screenplay dictates him to be, and the player is constantly reminded of this. If the player does happen to fail, they are re-spawned at a point where they must listen to the character's dialogue describing the scene, as if that misstep never happened. By the game's logic, it cannot happen: there is only one way this story can turn out, and in order to preserve the sanctity of the scene, the player must act as if it never happened, as if it is just a take, something to be left on the cutting room floor.

Ironically, Uncharted 2 is refuses to make the boldest leap: the jump from one medium to another. Instead of giving itself over totally to film it attempts to accommodate old gaming conventions into a package that soon gets bloated. On at least a half-dozen occasions, someone is saved from a deadly fall by another person catching their arm at the last minute. While this would be a source of dramatic tension in a film, the novelty quickly wears off: the player knows the game will not end that way and this same trick has already been repeated over the past ten hours. By creating fully-realized characters to stage a script with singular message, Uncharted 2 creates a work whose integrity is dependent on being guarded against outside interference. This is a challenge better met by film than by video games.

Similarly, Avatar is a work unwilling to endorse its own themes. By building a story about inhabiting a proxy body to explore fantasy realms, Avatar invites comparison to experiences that actually allow people to do such a thing, and suffers for it. Without a means to truly inhabit it, Pandora, a supposedly intricate world an abundance of both natural and social complexities to explore becomes little more than a glorified window. An investment that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and spanned decades created a virtual world, complete with virtual characters, and all we get out of it is three hours of rehashed Euro-centric tropes.

Both Avatar and Uncharted 2 are monumental works that showcase stunning imagery and unparalleled technological prowess. It is a shame that, despite all their grandeur, these monuments were erected in the wrong mediums.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

EXP Podcast #59: Uncharted Territory

The best games of 2009 have been selected and I have joined an unsurprising chorus of individuals who laud Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as their experience of the year. Such a title, however, with its unapologetic approach to cinematic game design, may hold untold dangers for the medium. So begins this week's conversation about the successes and failures of Uncharted 2. Once again, Scott and I focus on one single game we have recently played, reflecting on Naughty Dog and the future of game design. For those who have played the game, and those who have not, we encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Warning: This podcast contains spoilers for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Some discussion starters:

- First off, what are your thoughts on Uncharted 2? What did you find distracting or engaging?
- What are the extremities of linear-narrative game design? What are the consequences of exploring the boundaries of the medium?
- What other games have existed in these "dangerous game design" borderlands for you?

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: 32 min 59 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ambiance Saves the Day

Despite the many wasted narrative opportunities of Assassin's Creed 2, the world of Renaissance Italy draws me in, charming me even during the most tedious missions. Writing last week's piece about death and family in AC2 makes it seem as if I did not enjoy my experience with the game. On the contrary, I had a great time playing as Ezio and put in far more hours into the game than I would have had it not enraptured me so. Yet, once again, I am justifying my appreciation to myself. Why would a game, with so many mechanical flaws and narrative inconsistencies keep my attention for so long? Why are some games so pleasing despite all their well deserved criticisms? The answer is in the atmosphere.

Simon Ferrari of Chungking Espresso recently lambasted Assassin's Creed 2 with a 0 out of 5 stars review. The article is hyperbolic, hilarious and shockingly accurate. Leonardo Da Vinci's character is utterly wasted, the flying machine scene is absurd and misused, all the quicktime events are useless, and the camera can be a pain. Even the tomb scenes I relished are painfully flawed. Lastly, the game fundamentals, combat and platforming, are irksome enough to warrant heavy use of courtesans and speed walking on ground level, ignoring the game's famed verticality.
There are no points in Simon's article that I disagree with in particular, yet none of the many maligned design choices ruined my own experience. Some of his final questions illuminate the reason: "What do you like about this game? Building up your estate? Why don't you play a Sim game instead? Why should I have to return to my estate constantly to collect my 20-minute tithe?" I do, in fact, enjoy building up my Auditore estate. The monetary limit requiring my return serves as a reminder to check on my ever-expanding villa. I do not play a Sim game instead because it is not the same. It is the ambiance of Italy that I love.

I not only enjoy collecting material to furnish a large estate, I also enjoy collecting famous Italian paintings in particular. I purchased every available painting in the game, and eagerly show them off to anyone watching me play. The Auditore gallery provides an artistic walk-through of Renaissance art. Each piece has a small bit of information about the painting, often more than the real Uffizi Gallery in Florence provides. My excitement at purchasing a new painting in AC2 is similar to the excitement of eying a recognizable piece of art across a gallery show floor.
The atmosphere of the bustling city of Venice is just as pleasing. Bumping into the Piazza San Marco is instantly remarkable, particularly for those privileged enough to have visited Italy. The clothing of the Italian denizens add to the tone of the game. Even the guards with their uninspired fighting tactics but extravagant attire, and the largely useless, but visually striking and historically significant weapons add to the game's aura. Each city's architecture is a pleasure to explore and buildings of note satisfy a traveler's curiosity with historical information. One building's blurb, "If you weren't reading this you would be up there by now," is more offensive than the occasional screen tearing because it disregards the joy I receive from probing optional information.

The melding of science fiction with historical fiction is also satisfying. I find the glyphs that appear on famous landmarks are interesting despite the weak narrative because they add a level of mystery I had not presumed to exist. Each puzzle encourages me to imagine stories behind various historical events in the context of the game and how they might fit into Ezio's tale. The pay-out is ineffective, but the sci-fi elements are fun and subtly change the game's ambiance. Assassin's Creed 2 succeeds for me because it is a biased and sci-fi tinged atmospheric spectacle.
To give a small sneak peek at this week's podcast, Scott and I had similar conversation about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. While I will gladly defend many of Naughty Dog's design choices, I cannot deny the role ambiance plays in my enjoyment of Uncharted 2. I find the "Indiana Jones feel" of the game fantastic, which means what I find to be minor flaws could be glaring flaws for those not enveloped in the game's atmosphere. Similarly, one of the reasons I find Krystian Majewski's Mass Effect Interface Fail series so interesting is because, despite the fact these design errors are egregious, I still enjoy the game. Even the visual elements of the shoddy interface support the science-fiction-space-opera atmosphere very well.

How to include "ambiance" in the critical discussion of a game is difficult. Ambiance is hard to measure. Basic mechanics can contribute to atmosphere, along with cinematics, character models, voice acting, level design and more. It may also be more subjective than these other game elements alone, particularly for a title like Assassin's Creed 2 that relies on a believable simulacra of a real time and place. Valuing ambiance above all else is dangerous, certainly. Ignoring it completely as a critical design element, however, is an unfortunate mistake.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Gaming Resolutions

Although it may be trite, I enjoy the spirit behind New Year's resolutions. While they may not always be successful, the intent to pick up new habits and improve on the old year is a noble one. Seeing as how I am both a sucker for New Year's resolutions and a giant video game geek, is it really a surprise that I have a special sub-set of gaming-related New Year's resolution? We'll see how long these last:

The Must-Plays of 2010

I try to avoid pre-release hype, as it usually just reinforces the fact that I'll never get around to all the games I want to play. However, try as I might, I can't help but be excited about some of 2010's huge releases. Although I'm not convinced that it will make it out in 2010, Team Ico's The Last Guardian, promises to elicit awe (and possibly tears). I think that Super Mario Galaxy was one of the best games of the decade, so I am ecstatic about the prospect of Super Mario Galaxy 2. Finally: A playable 3D Yoshi! On the opposite end of the cuteness spectrum stands God of War III. The series brings me back to the golden days of brawling games and its fluid, brutally efficient combo system does a great job of modernizing the genre. Additionally, I enjoy the story and its characters far more than I probably should. Ever since God of War II's (literal) cliffhanger ending, I've been looking forward to part III.

Staying Current

Until I figure out a way to become independently wealthy or to get paid for keeping up with new releases, I will continue to amass a backlog of games that deserve to be played. As 2009 slips away, there are a handful of games that I skipped over. Batman: Arkham Asylum is probably the top priority; I am a big fan of the Dark Knight and, from what I've heard, the game succeeds as both as an excellent video game and a worthy entry into Batman lore. Following closely behind the caped crusader is Demon's Souls, whose promise of cruelty appeals to my sadistic tendencies.

Delving deeper into the still-recent past reveals still more games I was forced to leave on the shelf. Next year, I hope to squeeze in time for Deadspace, Braid, and Muramasa : The Demon Blade. I am also interested in Assassin's Creed 2, although my personal quirk (or affliction, as Jorge would argue) of feeling compelled to play the first game in a series before playing the sequel might hamper this goal.

Lastly, there is still a long list of games residing on my "list of shame." These are the games I haven't played even though they are considered some of the medium's seminal works. Like my perpetual intention to read Moby Dick, I still fully intend to complete Half Life or a Baldur's Gate game at some point. Maybe this will be the year?

Broadening Horizons

Last year, Sean Sands from Gamers With Jobs embarked on a noble attempt to explore game genres he usually avoided. Unfortunately, the project proved too taxing on his patience and sanity, and was ended prematurely. While I won't aspire to the "one game each month" formula that Sean tried, I am going to try to dabble in genres I have either forgotten or neglected.

For example, I haven't played an RPG since Final Fantasy X scarred my psyche with its insipid dialogue and horrendous voice acting. Perhaps thirteen will be my lucky number? I cannot remember the last Western RPG I played, but the prospect of Mass Effect's rich sci-fi universe is tempting.

My absence from RPGs is comparatively short in relation to other, even more neglected genres. I haven't seriously played a sports game since the N64-era, so I might try to fire up the latest edition of Madden. Although the world of military simulations is strange and scary to me, my affinity for Civil War-era history might convince me to seek out some strategy game action. Are there any games out there where you can customize your soldiers' facial hair? I'm looking for authenticity folks!

So there it is: Three broad resolutions to work towards during 2010. If April rolls and I still haven't finished Super Mario Galaxy 2, Batman is still gathering dust, and I continue to live in my platformer-centric rut, try not to be too harsh on me.

In order to deflect some of the attention away from me, I'll turn it over to you folks: Have you made any gaming resolutions for 2010? What are you looking forward to in the new year, and what are you glad we are leaving behind? Any tips on overlooked games or under-appreciated genres?