Posted by: bracehare | October 31, 2011

Invincible Death Lazer: creative vision

I have had an idea stuck in my head since approximately July 14th, 2008.  That idea was for a game, almost appalling in its simplicity, but immense in its own way.  If nothing else, my attempt to bring even part of that vision into reality is an attempt at catharsis; to finally cease dwelling on it, at least in its abstract ideal form, and to make something tangible of it,  which will doubtlessly hold less sway over me.  I would call it a high concept game, although the tone will be very crude and in ways which shatter the limitations of good taste.  My inspiration came in equal parts from exposure to games and game criticism, exposure to existential thought, and from intense personal experience with the platitudes, slogans, and soundbites which constitute “discourse” among both the lower ranks of society and the media which caters to them; among both the proles and their professional handlers; and the violence which is inspired or excused by these sophistries, as well as the intellectual and cultural damage which they perpetrate.  I want to create a statement against jingoism, against anti-intellectualism, and against the fundamental abdication of personal responsibility; all trends which have proven to be pervasive at every level of American society.  This game is not meant as a criticism of the America I know, which is diverse, and has at least as much good as bad.  It is meant as a criticism of the America which most vocally proclaims itself as such.  The most base and reprehensible philosophies are today enshrined and protected as a branch of identity politics; and this has made them contagious, because there is little in common between people in terms of their intellectual needs if not a need for an identity.

I tip my hat more than I ought to in writing all of this.  Proper satire and social criticism should not require explanation, and so to an extent I feel like I am doing a disservice to my art with this posting.  My vision is also liable to prove substantially more lofty than the final product I am able to create.  I have limited technical proficiencies, and limited time.  When; not if; my final game fails to be as didactically significant as I had wished, this large, circumlocutory wall of text will certainly be brought to bear against me.  That is ok.  Auspiciousness is a good thing.  Goals are useful for compelling motion of any sort, even when it falls short.  The type of person I enjoy the company of will recognize this (even if they must still be faithful to their criticism).  The type of person this game is meant as a parody of will not.  Video games, somewhat paradoxically, are horrible at conveying messages about choice.  This is because the actions of the player tend to seem mandated by the game.  The puerile tone of this game is intended to overcome this limitation by using narrative to contextualize the player’s ostensible lack of choice into an obvious, almost nauseating fiction; as it would be if it were a case of real life.  While this is a cheap narrative trick I am using to overcome a fundamental weakness of video games as a medium, it still allows me a story worth telling and the means to tell it.  That is sufficient for my purposes.  The revolution which completely changes how games tell stories can come later.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | October 24, 2011

Gaming and time

Other people have said it before, and other people have probably said it better.  There is also a risk I am delving into platitude here, but nevermind.  Several months ago I got Fallout: New Vegas, partly because of critical acclaim and partly because I wanted a game which would justify my excessively expensive computer build.  It was on sale for $10, so I figured why not.  Human Revolution is too rich for my blood at present, and I wanted to try one of those “open world” games.  The thing is, I am a busy little pika.  Between school and work and transgender stuff and poor person stuff, as well as my supernatural love for sleep, I am squeezed for time.  This means I can generally only find a spare half hour to an hour a day.  This time slot, small as it is, has proven perfect for certain games.  I can play a half hour session of Beat Hazard or A Reckless Disregard for Gravity and it is a cogent, enjoyable, and even somewhat relaxing experience.  However, that same half hour applied to New Vegas results in an experience which is utterly unsatisfying and often, in terms of game progression, completely stationary.  It will take me 30 minutes just to talk to all of the characters, accept a quest, and venture off in the aim of achieving it.  But then somewhere around the half hour mark I will be attacked by a swarm of giant radscorpians and have to start over again.  New Vegas features a lot of “walk from point A to point B” action, and this manages to absorb enough of any given half hour time slot to make it less than compelling.

The time slot a player affords to a given game is a window into the game world.  With many games, a small window is perfect; the game is divided into small, discrete units which largely function independently as experiences.  With open world games, the game is larger than my window.  I tested this recently by actually playing New Vegas for a reasonable span of time.  At an hour and a half or more, the game looks like this:

Where it otherwise only consists of the first three items.  My normal gameplay window is obviously too small.  The game is not enjoyable in 30 minute windows, because certain critical elements of the game are never present within it; IE, because the actual resolution of the quest, or for that matter, the bare salience of the quest, never arrives within a mere 30 minutes.  As trivial as this seems, I think it is fairly important.  It show that the amount of time a player is willing to devote to any given gameplay session will determine their enjoyment of the game relative to the time spacing of the content (and especially the “narrative arc”, so to speak).  I have heard this concept hinted at when discussions of portable game design are brought up.  One of my issues with the PSP (and indeed many people’s) is that the hardware and tech appeal of the console encourage development of types of games which are not necessarily suited for a portable device.  While 10 hour car trips and plane trips are a reality, so are thirty minute bus rides.  In that sense, Chu Chu Rocket or Advance Wars, with their discrete, self-contained levels, are better designed games than half of the PS2 style offerings available on Sony’s (now) last generation portable.  Although gamers can and do adapt, I still believe that their gameplay window (and its flexibility) is a fundamental comfort level; as well as a consequence of lifestyle, which is not always open to change for the mere sake of a game.  In essence, more is only better when your eyes aren’t bigger than your consumer’s mouth.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | October 18, 2011

JobQuest: Reflections

Having completed my first full game in GameMaker, I suppose it is time to collect my thoughts on the subject.  Broadly, I will contemplate on what went right and what went wrong with the game, as well as what I enjoyed and did not enjoy about the development process.  Attached below is a link to the game, along with all the documentation created for it.  The game is essentially playable, albeit severely unpolished, and the GameMaker source material is included.

JobQuest
http://www.megaupload.com/?d=0DEH4MR6

The game was meant to have a sort of bleak tone and to be frustrating.  As I didn’t have much control over the aesthetics there was a limitation to what I could do to implement this, but I am very proud of how the welfare office turned out.  The idea of forcing the player to wait for their ticket to be called in real time was, in a certain fundamental way, the centerpiece of the game.  I was overjoyed to get it working, and if I hadn’t managed to do so I don’t think it would be the same game at all.  I am also fairly happy with my intro sequence, which was a last minute addition, but which I think adds a huge amount of context to the game that was missing in previous iterations of it.  If you don’t know why you are searching for work, the gameplay proper becomes somewhat arbitrary.

As far as things I am unhappy with, the aforementioned aesthetics issue proved to be a disappointing limitation, even in terms of rather simple things like avoiding graphical artifacts.  I am also sad that I failed to make a game of the scope I had originally intended to, and that I failed to include dynamic NPC responses based on character health, which I feel would have contributed significantly to the overall tone of the game.  Less loftily, however, I am disappointed a bit in how rudimentary my item menu ended up being.  I was so happy to get it functional that I did little to improve it.  It is perhaps the best example of the game being unpolished, and has been shown to contribute to player confusion more than any other single thing.  It was so frustrating to work with it initially that I suppose I just developed a phobia of it, and moved on to other things, neglecting it in the process.

All in all this was good experience, and hopefully my next game will be a little more polished and a little more successful in attaining the goals outlined in the design document.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | October 17, 2011

Gaming as a social activity

There is a stereotype about gamers, which borrows rather derivatively from stereotypes about various “nerd” and “geek” demographics in a more generalized sense.  It doesn’t really require full and specific discussion; I am sure the reader can fill in the blanks easily enough on their own, perhaps even to the point of visualization.  Suffice it to say though, gamers are often viewed as antisocial recluses, content to idle their hours away in a dark room, eating *insert snack food here* and engaging in the simulated killing of thousands upon thousands of humans or humanoid lifeforms.  I am not going to suggest that this demographic doesn’t exist.  However, I don’t believe it is an accurate representation of current gaming culture.

To begin with, even if this representation were true; even if gaming were inherently antisocial; it would share this in common with many activities, including watching film and reading.  In fact, historically speaking, reading has been the pastime most denigrated under this logic.  There was a time when the term “bookworm” was a serious derogatory slight.  I am not here to argue the relative merits of film, books, and games, but simply to note that they are all typically solitary enjoyments.  However, social activities and in a sense entire cultures spring up in reference to them; the book club, the film club, mailing lists, collegiate literature and film courses, and so forth.  In the context of gaming, the primary social context (aside from perhaps tournaments for competitive games) actually tends to be the online discussion forum.  As a new technology, discussion forums are liable to be denigrated unfairly, but in an essential way they show that gaming is surrounded by social trappings in the same way as any other ostensibly antisocial activity.

Of course, games are not antisocial either.  A major gaming console, the Nintendo Wii, has actually been extensively and almost exclusively targeted at gamers looking for a multiplayer gaming experience.  This has lead some people to refer to the Wii as “the party console”.  The boom in online gaming in recent times has taken the face-to-face aspect out of multiplayer to a large extent, and this is perhaps a counter.  However, online gaming also allows friends to engage in leisure together despite any physical distance between them.  This geographical disparity, overwhelmingly caused by factors other than games (such as moving out of state to pursue a new job, joining the military, and etc) is nonetheless substantially mediated by them.  In this sense, games are no more antisocial than the telephone!

Finally, there is the matter of competitive games.  It is often said that sports have a positive effect on personal growth and development.  They teach camaraderie, perseverance, teamwork and so forth.  While most competitive video games doubtlessly fail to promote physical development, they at least seem equally able to provide for character growth.  Even single player competitive games seem at worst no more antisocial than, for example, poker, which anyone who has ever sat down at a green felted table knows can be quite a social game indeed.  Then of course there are games which do provide for physical development.  I grew up in the dancing game community.  At my peak level of competitiveness at these games, I joined a Taekwondo Dojang… and was immediately turned over to play with the black belts, on account of having too much energy.  I would certainly say I learned to experience camaraderie and mutual respect in the context of video games.   I would also say that I learned discipline.  And while I offer the reader no argument as such to establish these statements, I nonetheless affirm them every day by living them.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | October 10, 2011

Video games and the social context

This is something I touched upon a bit in my post on skill and salience, but would like to examine more deeply.  Video games (or for that matter games in general) are played and enjoyed by many different demographics.  Suffice it to say, this can lead to a single game being enjoyed in many different ways.  This has always been peculiar to me as a competitively inclined gamer, because it tends to end up presenting me with a type of player who in my mind is a paradox; a player who is absolutely thrilled, perhaps even obsessed with a game, yet seems to be ignorant, unskilled with, or even hostile to a large segment of the game’s mechanics.  Admittedly, the last two of these things can be spoken in derision of certain competitive player groups as well.  It is often brought up as a criticism of competitive fighting game scenes, Super Smash Brothers in particular, which tend to come with laundry lists of characters, maps, and features which are banned form tournament play.  In that sense any demarcation between modes of play has difficulty asserting a hierarchy between the modes, and I admit of my own biases as always, but keep in mind that I am also as fond of them as always.

Dance games provide a less muddled example than fighting games.  I am not going to get into the distinction between “freestyle” and “technical” players.  Rather, I am going to point out that if you go to, say, an anime convention, sci fi convention, or furcon, you will find people who have played dancing games for more than two years and never progressed beyond the intermediate difficulty of the game.  You will find players who have played on the highest difficulty settings for more than 2 years, who still miss steps on easier songs (absolutely unheard of in tournament play, where the difference between winning and losing is often whether or not you hit every step perfectly rather than whether or not you miss steps).  To provide an example which is more likely to resonate with an average reader, if you play Zynga poker (as opposed to any cash game online), you will find people who play any two cards, call any all-in bet with suited cards, connected cards, or Tx or higher (meaning a 10 and any other card), and bluff at more than half of all flops.

What do these people get out of these games?  Obviously the answer must be something, as there are a very large number of them; larger than the number of players who are mindful of the nature of the games they play, it seems.  Their goals are undoubtedly different from mine, but what are these goals?  Both the drive to explore and the drive to conquer seem equally likely to produce a competitive player, as they both lead to familiarity with game mechanics and possibilities.  Playing for experience doesn’t make sense as an explanation either, as bad players mostly just have the same experience every time they play; which is to say they lose; except perhaps when playing against other bad players.  And I think that is the etiology of all this.  If you have a player ecosystem which developed in the absence of competitive pressure, a player can have a diverse range of experiences with certain types of game (ie, zero-sum games) without actually investing any energy.  And I suppose that is sensible in its own right, as cheap thrills are probably a bargain to a lot of people who would have to work harder than they care for to get the same (or similar) experiences out of the game in competitive contexts.

Although as a competitive player, witnessing bad play sometimes leaves me feeling like my games are being defiled.  Still, at least I have discerned a logic in the matter now, which will perhaps be some small comfort to me the next time I see someone shove T2o from UTG first hand in a tournament.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | October 6, 2011

Game verbs in A Reckless Disregard for Gravity

I should start by saying I love this game.  I love how cyberpunk it is.  I love how nonsensical it is.  I love how so many other people don’t get it or appreciate it.  How could anyone fail to love a game that features this completely extemporaneous story?

In the year of our Lord 1982, Polystructures fell from space. Massive yet light, they touched the atmosphere, and stuck.
Scientists made new materials. Builders made new cities. Families made their homes thousands of feet above ground level.
Art made the floating super-sculptures, and culture made the floating caviar socials to regard them.
In the year of our Lord 2011, you cannot look up from beneath a city and see the stars.
But you can look down from above it.
And you can jump.
The jumps you make are not about art. They are about a reckless disregard for safety.
The jumps you make are not about culture. They are about a reckless disregard for regulation.
The jumps you make are not about science.
They are about a reckless disregard for gravity.

A Reckless Disregard for Gravity has one primary verb: fall.  You hurl yourself off of a building and steer yourself on the way down, receiving points both for coming as close to buildings as possible, and for staying within this close proximity as long as possible.  The second most obvious action is “deploy parachute”, which is necessary to safely land.  The player does not receive points for coming close to buildings after deploying the parachute, which places the incentive on waiting as long as possible before deploying it.  Other verbs include throwing a thumbs up or flipping the bird, which give you points when they are done respectively to fans or protesters who are standing on buildings.  One final verb is to spraypaint special green buildings, which also gives you points.  There are essentially only operative actions in this game, although there are a variety of subjects to which they can be applied.  Falling into a glass plate or a bird will give you points, whereas falling into the top of a building will kill you.  Falling into a teleporter or a “bounce” plate will take you back to some previous, higher point in the level.  Steering into the side of a building will cause you to bounce off of it, potentially losing control and smashing into the top of some other object, thus dying.  Finally, deploying the parachute and then steering into a special landing zone will give you extra points.  It is an incredibly simple yet addictive game.  The bulk of the complexity has little to do with the actions themselves and much more to do with the nature of the various maps you are given to navigate, and that is perfectly fine in my opinion.  It gives the game a more arcade-like feel, which I think is a style of game which is underrated by current gamers in general.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | October 6, 2011

Aesthetics in video games

There is this problem I have, and maybe you have it too.  I will be having one of those ever common “are videogames art?” discussions, and my opponent will ask me to name an example of a game with artistic merit.  Yet, upon entering this stage of the conversation, I will sound like an idiot as soon as my opponent asks me to describe the game:

Metal Gear Solid:

“What is it about?”

“You play as a supersoldier who has to kill a group of supersoldiers who were part of the unit you came from, including your clone brother, and uhhh, they went rogue and took over a nuclear missile base… umm… it is anti-nuclear and anti-war and there is some stuff about genetics in there.  It is good though!  Really!”

Ico:

“What is it about”

“You are a boy with horns who was interned in a castle by villagers who like to sacrifice boys with horns.  You discover a princess who is also locked up and have to save the princess from evil shadow demons who control the castle.  But it is good though!  It is really emotionally evocative and stuff!  I am not even joking!”

It may simply be that I am incredibly bad at describing games to people, but there is a tendency for my attempts to come out sounding like descriptions of comic books (as distinct from “graphic novels”, for the sake of avoiding argument by allowing the distinction) and children’s bedtime stories.  However, it is also generally understood by those who study storytelling that the difference between a good work and a bad one is not so much what ideas it uses (and every idea has been done before anyways), so much as the execution of those ideas.  In terms of a novel, that might include the quality of the prose.  In terms of a movie it might include the cleverness of the cinematography.  What does it mean in terms of a game, though?  Clearly something, and I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this very same something marks the bulk of the difference between a gamer’s appreciation of a work and the bland and facile descriptions they tend to give to non-gamers when focusing entirely on the content of the narratives themselves.

Metal Gear Solid was in a certain sense just a story about a clone ubermensch soldier, but how it was about this was significant.  The fact that you play as a more or less remorseless and conscienceless killer is reflected back to you by your interactions with other characters in the game, and in a way which simultaneously reinforces and problematizes this aspect of your character.  Solid Snake in MGS1 is an incredibly dynamic character (in a way which MGS2 and especially 4 actually undermine, but nevermind), and so the factor of personal growth that is present in the story buffers the otherwise trivial nature of the material.  The game also creates scope and depth, going to tremendous efforts in order to try and ground the tropes it utilizes within the context of a semi-realistic world political economy.  Ico gives scope and depth to its material through the creation of a fictional language and, counterintuitively, through a minimalist approach to storytelling which leaves the bulk of the game (including very notably the ending) to the player’s interpretation.  It also has a dynamic character; the princess.

One could sum up Ico very succinctly, albeit inadequately, simply by noting that the player sets out to rescue the princess and in the end the princess rescues the player.  This is certainly true, but it doesn’t carry the same gravity in text as it does in its execution within the game.  There is a moment in Ico where the player must take a leap of faith.  It is an incredible thing that, without receiving any sort of overt prompt from the game, every player intuitively knows it is obligated of them.  It is also an incredible thing to see it rewarded.  I would argue that this one example suffices to establish games as a medium capable of evoking deep and significant feelings, as without these feelings, the leap of faith required by the game would never be taken.  But these feelings are not evoked through narrative, but through aesthetic.  Ico could easily be argued to embody Japanese notions of Wabi-Sabi, but the true joy of it is that what very little it is “about” it expresses through the interactions between two characters.  The minimalism of the gameplay and story bring focus to the game, and this focus enables the communication of deep feelings and truths which would be lost in the noise of something more complex; even if that complexity was in the form of “stronger” narrative.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | September 27, 2011

Video games and terrible endings

Suffice it to say there will be spoilers for various games in this article.

Having recently elected to build a new computer for what is, in terms of my income, an absolutely ludicrous amount of money, I have found myself playing substantially more games.  This lead me to recently complete both Mirror’s Edge and Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days, both of which have one very notable thing in common: an absolutely horrible ending.  What’s more, the reasons both endings are horrible are pretty much the same for both games.  They are both perfunctory, come out of nowhere, resolve nothing in the plot, and would barely be distinguishable as an ending (as opposed to simply another cutscene in the game) were it not for the fact that the game stops afterward.  Given that these two different games suffer from the same malaise in terms of ending, this suggests the possibility of some commonality between them.  Odd, because Mirror’s Edge was highly anticipated and largely critically panned, whereas Kane and Lynch 2 flew largely under the radar and received fierce lashings from the gaming press where it didn’t (although not to nearly the same extent as its predecessor).  However, there is evidence that both games do share something in common: they seem to have both been intended as part of a franchise.  The easy conclusion then, is that video game producers do not know how to resolve story arcs while still allowing for the possibility of a sequel, and that they err on the side of games as a vehicle for making money rather than as a vehicle for storytelling.

Hardly a shocking observation, perhaps, but one which seems extremely pervasive in both AAA franchises and smaller, more critically rejected games.  After all, Halo 2 is commonly given as an example of a game with a terrible ending, and it was one of the highest grossing games of all time.  It is an interesting break from what made oldschool game endings terrible, perhaps; many 2d titles leave the player with a simple “congratulations” or “you win”.  In fact, examples of this sort of ending which have occurred in Engrish (IE, poor translations of games from outside the US) have gone on to maintain notoriety and catchphrase status.  I still remember beating Alice in Wonderland for the Phillips CD-I, a 5+ hour puzzle game with no saves, by means of entering a room, and only to be told “congratulations, you’re the queen of wonderland!” and be greeted with literal pixelated confetti.  In oldschool games, endings are perfunctory because the game is essentially a write-off.  In new games, endings are perfunctory because producers don’t want to actually close any plot holes, apparently out of fear that they might not be creative enough to think of a new scenario to justify a sequel; and so they’re compelled to try to stretch the bare essentials of one narrative over as many different games as possible.

– Jessica Evans

Posted by: bracehare | September 26, 2011

Music games: cliches and conventions

Undoubtedly the genre with which I have the most experience, music games represent a genre with surprisingly little variance.  The general gameplay mechanics of any music game have the player pressing some button or combination of buttons, usually on a specialized controller, in response to visual patterns which act as prompts and which (generally) follow the music.  Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Beatmania IIDX, and Taiko Drum Master all differ primarily (though certainly not solely) on the issue of their controller.  In fact, all of these games in theory could be run using the same game engine with only minor changes in graphical themes (and this is not an idle claim as the Stepmania game engine has been made to run most of these).  Minor differences between games involve the presence or absence of “hold” patterns (where a button has to be held down), the visual appearance of the prompt patterns, and whether or not a button press triggers a sound to play, as well as the nature of the scoring system used.

There are other, more subtle tropes though.  One involves “boss songs”; the existence of songs which are deliberately created to be substantially more difficult than the general body of songs, often played or unlocked during extra or final stages.  Another concerns the existence of multiple different sets of note patterns for players of different skill levels, labeled with corresponding difficulties.  Ultimately, music games tend towards uniformity.  I don’t believe this is bad though.  I am not sure that the point of music games is for them to be novel.  Players who enjoy them tend to enjoy the inherent gameplay mechanics.  Recurring patterns lend themselves to the playability of the games (as the player does not have to constantly relearn and can build on past play experience) and to the enjoyability of games; as long as the game gives players the possibility of improvement, both through songs of diverse difficulty and through a scoring system which is sufficiently strict (by some standard or other, it doesn’t really matter which), the leit motifs of music games can repeat ad infinitum to the perfect contentment of the average music game player.

 

Posted by: bracehare | September 25, 2011

Achievements

As far as gameplay features go, Achievements easily rank as one of the most critically detested.  The complaints are all fairly well established: they detract from immersion, encourage pointless elitism, often function as arbitrary padding, and are frequently entirely redundant.  These are fair complaints.  Imagine if, in Final Fantasy VII, the death of Aeris was immediately followed by the characteristic bleep of an Xbox gamer score increasing and some half-clever play on words.  50 gamer points!  Consider how the incentive in most of these schemes (with the possible sole exception of Steam achievements) is to play as many games as possible, essentially making them a marketing strategy designed to take advantage of the competitive instincts of players.  There are games which have literally hundreds of achievements, far in excess of the playtime they might justify otherwise, seemingly created solely to entice perfectionists to invest excessive time in them.  Finally, there are the achievements which happen simply by merit of the player progressing normally through the game; the achievements at the end of each chapter, for instance, which function almost as bookmarks or progress ticks.

The inherent absurdities of achievements have even been parodied, to an extent, in the Achievement Unlocked! series of flash games (which the author must duly note she has all played to completion).  However, in spite of all of these complaints, and their validity, I must admit to a certain fondness for achievements.  As with video game mechanics in general (particularly storytelling mechanics), I believe the issues do not arise from their inherent inferiority but from their misapplication.  A forum discussion on the subject which took place on SelectButton.net several years ago yielded a comment which made a strong case for this.  PS3 trophies had just come out, and this player was happy to note that an Achievement for the game Mirror’s Edge had increased their enjoyment of the game.  The achievement in question, called “Test of Faith”, requires the player to complete the game without shooting an enemy.  One of the common complaints about Mirror’s Edge is that the eminently enjoyable free running sections were awkwardly juxtaposed with very contrived and annoying shooting sections.  Accordingly, the player reported that being forced to find ways around these sections actually served to mitigate what had been the strongest weakness of the game.  When achievements are used in this capacity, to force players to find new ways of playing and of interacting with the game world, they can have quite a bit of utility.  However, such achievements are rare; most pertain to reaching checkpoints, performing a common action a large number of times, playing and winning on harder difficulties, and avoiding damage.  When achievement finally catch up with their potential, however, I believe that they can make novel contributions to video games, instead of simply serving as meaningless collectibles; or rather, collectibles which only take on meaning in the context of misdirected competitive inclinations and a not-so-subtly veiled “gotta catch ’em all” marketing campaign.

– Jessica Evans

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