Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Once Again Into The Stars

Twice I have ventured into the cold blackness of EVE Online, and twice it’s unwelcoming learning curve and baffling assortment of features drove me away from interstellar travel. Yet again I donned my space-pants for CCP’s infamous MMO, and thus far I have lasted an entire week!

By now you have certainly heard of EVE’s perilously steep learning curve (See image top). Despite revamped tutorials, the game is not much easier to understand since my last foray at least two years ago. The interface, which CCP is still adapting, is jam-packed with information. I can spend hours digging into links about armor shielding, cluttering my display with allusions to story elements and ship modifications I may never encounter.

Meanwhile, political realities are constantly shifting, the result of unbridled corporate espionage and backstabbing that sets EVE apart from its MMO compatriots. Looking at the political maps, colors pouring over white, each representing the sovereign territory of a corporation, has a diminutive effect. The universe is so vast and I am so small and ignorant.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Digital Relief: An Interview with GameSave

My latest PopMatters article, or in this case interview, is now live: Digital Relief: An Interview with GameSave.

Most of my energy here at EXP is spent writing about "normal" games, be they mainstream or indie. However, most of my academic efforts are spent thinking and writing about social impact games. In fact, this time next week I will be starting an internship with Games for Change in New York and hopefully garnering an interesting perspective into the educational and persuasive games industry.

Like my interviewees Annie Wright and Willow Brugh, I take the world-changing potential of games for granted. I am far more interested in how games can engender positive change than in the great "art debate." As Annie makes clear in the interview, games can fill many niches and satisfy many needs. GameSave is one attempt, among others, to respond to global crises with modern media. While the event's conclusion is almost two months away, I trust the outcome will be worthy of all our attention.

In regards to the types of GameSave creations I might find personally interesting, I would be fascinated by games that model many of the problems prevalent within modern systems of aid and development. The aid industry is burdened with a slew of problems, from inefficiencies and corruption, to systems of dependency and paternalistic relationships. The aid world is also deeply competitive, with organizations scrambling to secure donor funding and prove their worth.

Of course the games that will come out of GameSave will likely address a variety of relief issues and pass some of these concerns up for more pressing matters. Disaster scenarios, be they man-made or otherwise, are ripe with systems waiting to be explored and understood through a gaming lens. GameSave has plenty of room to grow.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

EXP IndieCast #3: Ludum Dare and don't take it personally...

It's time once again to look at some of the independent games we've been playing over the last month! This week, we discuss a few games created for the Ludum Dare game jam event as well as Christine Love's newest work, don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story. Both topics encompass a huge amount of material, so we highly recommend you visit the websites listed in the show notes to explore all the intriguing games. Weather you're into sword showers, scurvy, or social scandals, this episode has something for you!

Some discussion starters:

- Which Ludum Dare games did you enjoy?
- How can games effectively model emotional and social systems?
- What benefits does a highly-structured game like don't take it personally... have over more player-structured 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 here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Words, Actions, and the PlayStation Network's Future

It's been over a month since a security breach prompted Sony to shut down the PlayStation Network, and the service is still hobbled. Now, it's time for Sony to pick up the pieces: the network has been (supposedly) strengthened, Kaz Hirai has issued a formal apology, and players are being welcomed back to PSN with a "customer appreciation program." While the prospect of a couple free games is always a welcome one, I'm uncertain as to how much Sony has actually learned from this whole ordeal and whether this program truly shows the proper amount of appreciation towards players and developers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Quiet Practicality: Non-verbal Communication's Mechanical Strenghts

My latest PopMatters article is about the benefits of non-verbal communication in multiplayer games.

Maybe I just like to make things more complicated than they need to be, but I really enjoy symbolic or gestural communication between players. Don't get me wrong: voice chat is great, but its immediacy often overshadows other clever, artistic ways of communicating. For those designers chasing the holy grail of "immersion," getting rid of contemporary human voices can augment the in-game world. On the technical side, non-verbal communication can circumvent issues caused by hardware or network problems

Unfortunately, I had to cut myself off before getting into the cultural and accessibility benefits of symbolic communication systems. For folks with speech disorders, relying on voice chat is simply untenable. Non-verbal communication can work as an inclusive tool and put everyone on equal footing. While I honestly believe that most players are well-intentioned, harassment and discrimination is an unpleasant reality in on-line games. In games that don't rely on voice chat, it's more difficult to ascertain a player's gender, ethnicity, or nationality, which can help sidestep prejudice. Of course, simply muting everyone isn't the best long-term solution to addressing on-line bigotry; education and tolerance are the ultimate goals. In the short term though, silence can offer safety, or at least a respite.

However, that's an essay for another day. This piece is about appreciating both the utility and creativity non-verbal communication offers. Video games are primarily a visual medium, so it shouldn't surprising that, when it comes to expressing ourselves in games, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

EXP Podcast #128: Pledging Brand Fealty

The Sony network has returned, but has our faith in the company? What happens to brand loyalty when the going gets tough? This week, inspired by the Gamers With Jobs podcast, Scott and I discuss our own loyalties to corporations and developers, the Sony hacking debacle, and the meaning within these illusory relationships. As always, you can find a link to our inspiration in the show notes. We also encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:
- Where do your brand loyalties lie? You can be honest. This is a safe place.
- How, if at all, has Sony's recent troubles altered your relationship with the company?

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 here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Sci-Fi Blues

Along with my collection of “normal” books about urban malaise, medical practitioners, and feuding families, a hefty portion of my yearly reading list includes science-fiction and fantasy novels. Many of these works approach the subject with a scalpel, selecting the strangest and most revealing aspects of the genre to both confound and surprise the reader. The best works of any genre understand the contributions of predecessors and contribute to a conversation between work; they play with expectations and surprise readers. Sci-fi in particular is rife with astounding literary works taking an array of approaches to the genre. Why, then, does the sci-fi genre of videogames seem so mute? Why is the future so predictable in games?

Ask my co-writer Scott why Star Trek is such an influential television program some time. He will tell you how the show’s creators tackled nearly every element of science fiction possible, wrangling the concepts to their will and influencing a generation of sci-fi writers onwards. The utility of genre in the first place (and here I refer to thematic conceptions of game genres that I furiously espouse), lies not just in its suite of common elements, but in its ability to foment a conversation across time, between both creators and consumers. Sci-fi games, however, tend to collect the genre’s cliche’s without contributing to an ongoing discussion across art forms.

Mass Effect, for example, is a space opera, and an amazingly successful one at that. I absolutely adore this franchise. Yet while it adds a great deal to the games industry, it adds little to the sci-fi genre. The “bad guys” are scary-looking aliens who can raise the dead, and a rag-tag crew of humans and aliens, unsupported by the galactic council, must defeat them. To be fair, the game’s minor quests play with the genre more than the main story arch, but even these tend to be homages to past sci-fi works, not contributions to an ongoing conversation.

Dead Space, although predominantly a horror game, also fails to defy or play with sci-genre expectations. The dangers of interstellar mining operations have been thoroughly explored (all the tentacled zombies that will arise from their depths have done so). Yet the game’s protagonist is named Isaac Clarke, an allusion to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, two masters of hard sci-fi. Where are the explorations of fate and control of Foundation? Where are the enigmas of Rendezvous with Rama? Like Isaac in the first Dead Space, the games are mute.

Braid, of course, stands as a genre success, incorporating time travel with the sensations hope, loss, and regret. Achron manages to work time travel into strategy games as well, incorporating paradoxes into the mix. Yet these games are not indicative of the whole, and I do not think sci-fi is the only genre suffering. Are fantasy games that much better off? Do they engage with the history of fantasy fiction? Have games rightly abandoned genre conversations or are we languishing in the doldrums of genre isolation?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Categorizing Videogame Reboots

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Categorizing Videogames Reboots.

The inspiration for this article, which discusses two different methods of freshening up a franchise in a jovial way, comes largely from a similar talk given by David Gallagher of Crystal Dynamics at a recent IGDA talk. David mentioned other examples of reboots, but did not go as in depth into the concept as I we could go. Recognizing that not all reboots function the same way is important in figuring out what types of reboots work and do not work for certain franchises. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for example, does not attempt to freshen up the series in the same way Batman Begins refreshes the superhero film.

Awhile back, Scott and I discussed the upcoming Lara Croft reboot and game reboots in general on the EXP Podcast. Thus, it was fitting Crystal Dynamics were discussing the concept of the reboot in the first place. I see Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light as a "centaur reboot," and an incredibly successful one at that. To some extent, I think the game works as a primer for its subsequent franchise reboot. Before Guardian of Light, I had little interest in revisiting Lara Croft. My enjoyment of Guardian raised my awareness of Crystal Dynamics and reminded me I still enjoy raiding tombs. In some ways, the game was a low-risk way of testing the waters. It helps, of course, that the game was fantastic.

As for the upcoming major Lara release, it seems to be a "fashion reboot," reclothing itself in more serious attire. Based on what little material we have available, the game looks like it would not appear the way it does were it not for Uncharted 2. This is not to say Lara Croft is trying to copy it or exploit familiarity with Drake, but that the grounded and weathered aesthetic translates well into a different franchise. That being said, the severity of abuse on Lara in the marketing images is startling. Drake might tear his pants and scuff his shoes, but he maintains an 'Indiana Jones' movie-star appearance. Lara looks ragged and beaten down. It may turn out Lara becomes more serious and emotionally significant than Drake, a true heroine instead of a movie star. If executed well, we may all be grateful to see Lara Croft rise from the dead.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

EXP Podcast #127: Games in the Gallery

Last week, the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced the games that will be included in its upcoming exhibit The Art of Video Games. After the curators selected 240 nominees, people voted for which games would be included in the exhibit. The list is full of influential games, so we thought it would be fun to go through the selections and discuss some of the highlights. You can follow along with us by downloading the PDF document listing the winners and runners up from the American Art Museum's website. It's a big list, but not nearly big enough to fit everyone's most beloved games, so feel free to share your choices in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Which of your favorites made the list? What were some notable omissions?
- What patterns do see across across the time periods and the various formats?
- While visual art is relatively easy to convey visually, it is can be more difficult to convey design philosophies. How are games best presented in a public format?

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 here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Down With Hierarchies, Up With Analysis

As someone who writes on a website called Experience Points, I suppose I'm compelled to comment on Dan Cook's recent article decrying experiential game analysis: "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." In it he calls for better methods of filtering game criticism, encourages a greater understanding of the "art, craft and science of games" on the part writers, and argues for the need of "a defined class of criticism that focuses on improving games." While these requests may not seem controversial, Cook goes on to construct a biased hierarchy of criticism and proceeds to treat it as a fact. Ironically, in his quest for an empirical way to "improve" games, he exhibits some of the very behaviors his article claims to criticize. Thankfully, despite much "hand-waiving" and imprecise language, he manages to find the seeds of a compromise between his beliefs and those held by the people he criticizes.

Before going any further, I want to make it clear that I don't know Dan Cook personally and am largely unfamiliar with his work. Friends have told me that they respect him and his work, and I trust their judgment. I carry no personal grudge against him and I actually agree with some of his points. I do believe that video game writing would benefit from more people who have a deep knowledge of development. I know that my very limited experience with creating games has shaped the way I analyze them. In the broadest sense, exploring a new discipline and learning new things is rarely a bad thing. However, much of the positive material in the essay is buried under layers of troublesome generalizations and a myopic view of the nature of criticism. While I disagree with many of Cook's assertions, I'll limit myself to a few broad themes his article touches on.

Persuasion and Publishing

It is important to review how Cook went about conveying his argument, as it serves as a lesson in rhetoric and persuasion. The original essay went up on May 7 and has been since modified. While the current iteration retains the original's spirit, the first draft contained much harsher language that amounted to little more than ad hominem criticism of authors Cook does not enjoy. References to straw man authors sitting on "a dilapidated couch" while "spewing ignorant blather" have been removed, but they live on in the comments and in the timely responses of folks like Ben Abraham, Daniel Golding, and Michael Abbott.

Mean-spirited insults, being dismissive of others work, and thinly veiled elitism are poor ways of attracting serious attention and diminish the possibility for real discussion. Similarly, quietly editing a publicly-posted essay and hiding all prior drafts is disingenuous to those that have taken the time to contribute their thoughts. While disappointing, Cook's condescending and self-centered behavior is understandable, as the essay itself is a monument to elitism and blind self-interest.

The Elect and the Acolytes

Cook's preferred model of game criticism centers around the idea that criticism will help "improve" games. Setting aside for a moment what it even means to "improve" the medium, it appears that he is advocating for a hierarchy in both the critical sphere and the wider game community. In this hierarchy, any writing that does not yield simple "actionable" items for developers to implement is a waste.

This line of thought is disturbing to me, as it suggests the only reason to write about games is to perform labor for developers. In this case, criticism that uses a game to focus on historical, social, or cultural issues is automatically second-class material. It seems to lead to a future where games writers are little more than focus group participants or R&D workers toiling away for the benefit of the exalted developer.

Even the most experiential or culturally focused writing contains lessons for developing games. "Bow Nigger" contains information on everything from on-line matchmaking to player demographics. One of my own articles, "Race in Rapture," was not explicitly intended as an instructional paper on how to handle race in video games, but it provides plenty of information contained for developers who want to study the issue. Just because the lessons are not presented in bullet-point format does not mean they do not exist.

Criticism need not be specifically directed at developers or solely focused on design mechanics in order to illustrate games as culturally important. A novel way of reinterpreting an old game can aid the medium's growth just as implementing refined techniques can improve future games. Developers need not be revered as the elect and critics need not act solely as acolytes. Those who do not follow Cook's path need not be derided as servants to the unenlightened "People-Who-Consume."

A Chilling Effect

Developers' words hold influence in the video game community and, as Uncle Ben always said, "With great power comes great responsibility." I take no issue with Cook's evaluation that most game criticism is a waste of his time, but it is disheartening to read a philosophy that unapologetically devalues the work of a certain segment of the video game community. Rather than simply move past articles that don't hold his interest, Cook seems interested in actively discouraging them.

What of the person whose schedule, finances, or interests preclude them from gathering the empirical data Cook wishes to see? A person working two jobs might not have time to develop an indie game. A person might not be able to afford a computer than can run any of the big game editors, but they can write about their experiences with the old SNES they bought at the flea market. A person who has dedicated their lives to gender equality might have little interest in programming or game design, but their analysis of the ways games represent sex might have valuable cultural insights.

Cook admits that he is seeking a more convenient way to find people whose critical approaches match his needs. Instead of ignoring innocuous, irrelevant works or valorizing ideal examples, this mission of personal convenience relies heavily on tearing down others who contradict his ideal form of criticism. The message is simultaneously uninspiring and selfish: if your writing doesn't conform to a particular set of standards, you probably shouldn't bother. If more developers used the arguments and rhetoric Cook employs in his essay, who knows how many voices would be discouraged and shamed into silence?

Sharing "Analysis"

Cook argues that the ideal form of game writing needs to desert the term "criticism," a term that that has "stagnated under the weight of navel-gazing divorced from practice." Again, Cook falls into the trap of assuming non-developers and those who do not focus on the empirical and applied study of games are not performing criticism. However in abandoning criticism, Cook looks to set up shop around another world: "analysis." In choosing such a word, Cook has stumbled upon the solution to his problems.

I hope Cook will find the word analysis is already home to a variety of meanings and disciplines, many of which seem to contradict the hierarchical critical ladder he seeks to build. In fact, "game analysis" is a wonderfully varied term: writing about the reload times in Gears of War, the morality system in Dragon Age, and the cultural construction of childhood in Limbo all seem to fit the description. "Analysis" is just another word for detailed examination; historical, cultural, sociological, psychological analysis exist as disciplines right alongside mechanical, mathematical, and physical analysis. Games are a tangled mess of humanity and technology, both of which deserve careful study. It is the reason why Jorge created The Sensationalist and why I mix Carl Sagan quotes into my mechanical analysis. Instead of trying to carve out increasingly narrow definitions of what constitutes worthwhile criticism, let us instead view game criticism as a collection of analytical styles and disciplinary approaches. In this way, we can create a sweeping definition that resists poisonous dogma and encompasses the talents of everyone who wishes to participate.

By insulting large segments of the community, discounting the importance of the humanities, misunderstanding the function of criticism, and actively discouraging potential writers, Cook's quest to "make games better" is off to an inauspicious start. A community comprised of factions contemptuous of one another hardly seems likely to produce valuable material.

However, we have fortuitously found ourselves occupying common ground. Because of its malleability, there is room for everyone under the umbrella of "analysis." Qualitatively oriented folks can inhabit the same territory as quantitative folks without fear of stepping on each other's toes. Theoretically minded people can work alongside the practically minded without jockeying for legitimacy. With no need to fight for space, perhaps we can even start talking and get to know one another?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lugaru HD: Going in Blind

It's been almost two weeks since Easter, but I've still got bunnies on the brain. My latest article at PopMatters is about Lugaru HD.

I purchased the game as part of 2009's Humble Indie Bundle but had never found the time to play it. Not only that, I had never taken the time to do any research about the game whatsoever. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn't an anthropomorphic warrior rabbit on a quest for revenge.

Shortly after the game's tutorial started, I realized what I had on my hands: Lugaru HD is a 3D brawler. Even after learning the control scheme, I was still in the dark in regards to the game's structure: Was there a hub world? How would weapons interact with each other? Would these rabbits talk? I realized it had been a long time since I had entered a game without any preconceptions.

Ultimately, I had mixed feelings towards the game. Combat encounters oscillated between feeling fluid and clunky. Even when viewed in its historical context, Lugaru's approach to 3D combat is less elegant than games like Devil May Cry or God of War. The environments were surprisingly large, but I rarely used all the space in my many battles against the other vicious woodland creatures. The story, sparse as it is, walks the line between self-serious and camp sensibilities, which intrigued me to the point that finishing the plot became my prime motivation for playing. I found its mixture of grit and humor quite charming.

While I have my reservations about the impending transition to an all-digital future, my experience with Lugaru is a great example of the benefits of a downloadable model. The Humble Indie Bundle allowed me to play a game I never would have encountered. Flexible pricing and an innovative promotional strategy rewarded an independent developer, extended an old game's life, and gave me a unique and valuable experience. What more could you ask for?

The only answer I can come up with is "more," so hopefully projects like the Humble Indie Bundle will make like rabbits and multiply. Going into a game without any expectations was a refreshing respite from the hype-saturated mainstream environment and I hope to do it more often.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

EXP Podcast #126: Wii Expected More

The internet is abuzz with rumors and speculations about Nintendo's 'Project Cafe,' what most of us are calling the Wii 2. The newcomer will feature a touchpad screen on each controller, HD capability, and maybe the ability to read minds.  But what about its predecessor? Are we abandoning the Wii as a failure? To help us answer this question, we are joined this week by Gus Mastrapa, who wrote a timely and provocative piece about just this subject. Join us while we discuss the high and lows of console failures, the loss of console cycle excitement, and Nintendo's history of innovation. As always, you can find original articles in the show notes. We also encourage you to leave your thoughts on the Wii and the Wii 2 in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:
- In your eyes, did the Wii succeed or fail? Did you have high expectations for the console?
- What have you come to expect from Nintendo today? Do they still reign as great innovators?
- What are your thoughts about the upcoming Wii 2?

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 here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.
Show notes:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

True and False Memories

The sensation of déjà vu can be quite exhilarating. Suddenly, when confronted with a false memory, you can prod at a feeling just out of reach, trying to re-invoke a fleeting recollection. The phenomena is an illusion of course. We are not all blessed with occasional and useless prescience, but the feeling is very real. After so many years of playing games, watching other playing games, reading about them, etc., my mind has collected an assortment of true and false memories, swaying my thoughts while I game.

Playing through Portal 2 recently, I was struck by how familiar the game felt. This should not have come as a surprise, as I played the first Portal just a few years ago and toyed around with it several times since its release. Yet the sequel created a sense of familiarity distinct from recognition, more akin to the feeling of homecoming. The white paneled walls of Aperture Science, and even GLaDOS’s snide remarks, were comforting. It was as if playing Portal 2 reinvigorated and brought forth the memory of playing its predecessor.

Valve, quite intentionally, encouraged these sensations. Portal 2 features more than a few callbacks to the first game, which itself is quite memorable. Also, our brains amazingly trudge up old memories when in familiar environments, freshening our lay of the land in case of a predator attack.

Similar sensations of comfort and familiarity arose while playing Mortal Kombat, although my memories were not so fresh. I generally steer clear of fighting games, and I had not touched a Mortal Kombat game in many years. Nevertheless, memories came flooding back. Not all vivid memories mind you, often just the sensations of play, recognizable excitement, even frustration. The game’s aesthetics mirrored the first game in the series I had played so long ago, and I knew this both consciously and subconsciously.

Yet not all of my Mortal Kombat memories came from sleepovers at my friend’s house in 1993. While playing the latest MK, I brought with me other fighting games, including some I never played but only watched or heard about. I felt a collective nostalgia for early nineties fighting games and an arcade culture I never experienced in its apex. I even felt a sense of righteous defensiveness over the game’s fatalities, remnants perhaps of the media outrage against the series occurring while I was too young and naive to understand or care.

I carry with me both true and false memories of games past, all of them real, all of them affecting my perceptions of games now. My self as a player is inextricably tied to a collective history of play. On occasion, like encountering the ephemeral anomaly of déjà vu, I feel part of something grand and immortal. These are sensations worth remembering.