October 2007 Archives

sims.pngUnlike some others around here, I'm still having trouble with this whole blogging thing. I love having a place to comment on, respond to, and analyze gaming news, but I seem to have a recurring Pascalian problem with writing long and rambling entries. It's a tricky form, it turns out. Not to worry - I'm past the busy weekend and ready to get back to writing, and I'll get the hang of this whole thing eventually. In the meantime, here's a bit of a link dump.

  • Happy Halloween! Here's a vegetable representation of our favorite little obsession.
  • And even more impressive, a life-sized example done in foam board and looking damn beautiful. [ETA: For the impatient, an unofficial cuddly version.]
  • Funny and I-swear-to-God-not-Portal-related bit of satire over at Sexy Videogameland. If you've ever played an RPG - well, pretty much any game, really - then you'll recognize this game cliche. [ETA: The saga continues.]
  • Yahtzee Crowshaw is absolutely brilliant, and his sarcastic reviews over at The Escapist are a new favorite stop on the web.
  • Keita Takahashi's in the news because he wants people to have a life outside of videogames, but mostly I want to point out his awesome hat.

Befitting the tossed-together nature of this post, something completely unrelated: Guitar Hero III came out yesterday and I'm trying to figure out if I should spring for the new Les Paul, or if I'm good with my old X-Plorers. Any advice?
wcc.pngBusy weekend, busy week; I've been stressed out and too busy to write. Expect more following this weekend, including: interactive fiction, gender and sexuality, and my wonderful companion cube t-shirt.

In the meantime, treat your ears with some more Portal-inspired music, courtesy of Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Looks like the viral marketing is really starting to kick in; it seems that a lot of people are talking about Portal, and encouraging people who don't usually play games to check it out. This track, created by the aptly-named Victims of Science, is very well done and I will be listening to it alongside Still Alive for a while yet. Also, on that subject, check out this interview of Jonathan Coulton. Apparently Still Alive will see an official release over Steam before too long. And, Valve promised cake but never delivered. The cake is a lie!
wcc.pngI have a confession to make. I've been listening to "Still Alive" on endless repeat for four days now. I can hear GLaDOS speaking in my head. My dreams are filled with promises of plush Companion Cubes. In short, I've gone completely crazy over Portal. Fortunately, I'm in very good company. And I've discovered a lot of outlets for my obsession.

It started with wallpaper. Lots of wallpaper. And YouTube videos: some musical, some involving mods to the Source engine, and some of them a little of both. When I discovered the papercraft, and was able to assemble my own faithful companion, I knew it couldn't end there. I needed something wearable.

Now, I'm no artist, but I thought that I might be equal to an ultra-simple iconographic style. So I came up with a couple designs that I'm not too embarrassed about, and I want to share them. Click the images below for higher resolution versions (CC-BY-SA), in case you want to reuse them or play with them. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!


The Weighted Companion Cube Loves You

If the Weighted Companion Cube could talk, and the Enrichment Center takes this opportunity to remind you that it cannot, it would tell you that it loves you. I put this on a gray ringer t-shirt with black trim.


The Weighted Companion Cube Cannot Speak

The symptoms most commonly produced by Enrichment Center testing are superstition, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, and hallucinations. Also common: overestimating the cuddliness of objects. I think this would look good on a gray sweatshirt.


Please Take Care of the Weighted Companion Cube

To ensure maximum satisfaction with the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube, proper care guidelines must be followed. I can't imagine this on a shirt, but it looks nice on a coffee cup.
bioshock.pngGame|Life reports that developer David Braben is claiming Bioshock and Halo 3 aren't next-gen games. Obviously this is an incendiary comment intended to stir up controversy and draw attention to Braben's upcoming "techno thriller" The Outsider, which I had never heard of before now. So, congratulations, Mr. Braben, mission accomplished.

Braben can make this statement because he's not using the generally accepted definition of "next-gen." According to his own definition, games "must give the player the chance to change the story beyond simply following a good or evil path" in order to qualify. I consider this an admirable proposition, in some sense - certainly, I agree with him that Bioshock and Halo 3 represent a traditionally linear sort of game design, which results in a fundamentally predictable narrative experience. This has advantages and disadvantages over a nonlinear system, such as can be found in, for example, Second Life, Civilization or Animal Crossing. I also agree with Braben that the industry could stand to see more exploration and innovation in the nonlinear game space. But the fact remains that, while Braben might consider this the criteria for creating a next generation game, no one else does.

In common understanding, generations are strictly defined and indelibly related to hardware cycles, and games are classified by the cycle during which they're released. For the most part, it's a clear-cut classification. Braben is clearly trying to redefine generations based on something other than hardware; presumably, as artistic movements based on universal design philosophies. Movements are similar to generations in that they're sequentially progressive - each iteration is a reaction to its predecessor. But I don't think that's an accurate description of the way games are developed. First of all, it would be difficult to pin down design philosophies that come anywhere near universal at a given time. There's simply too much variety in the industry. Additionally, even though one could argue that games are designed as reactions to previous games, there generally isn't a stable progression to it. Rather, a game's design is likely to include a number of philosophical precepts, each a response to a different (or, more likely, many different) earlier games.

The best way to classify games uses genres rather than artistic movements. Genres are relatively stable and tend to coexist rather than occur sequentially. Generally, games are well suited to this sort of organization, but certainly there are clusters or sequences of games within some genres that can be classified or analyzed differently - and, for that matter, there are many cases of games that straddle genres, or fuse them, or defy them. Genres are complicated, and a favorite subject of mine, so no doubt the discussion of how genres are differentiated and how games are classified within them will continue to be a common theme of my posts.

While I think all this is fascinating (and maybe that's just me), I suspect that Braben's intention isn't to imply a different sort of classification system for games. I think he's merely trying to use the phrase "next-gen" as a synonym for "cutting-edge" or "avant-garde," or maybe even "buzz-worthy." Which I don't think is particularly accurate, either. The claim that Bioshock and Halo 3 don't push the envelope is simply wrong, even if the envelope they're pushing isn't the same one Braben is interested in. Game design is eminently multi-dimensional, and these games, along with Portal, and others, no doubt, are breaking ground in one particular dimension of it: narrative context.

Certainly this is true of Portal, which hints throughout at the larger world in which the game takes place, and contains just the right amount of mystery to ensure the player is considering the implications of the things they are presented with throughout the course of the game. And that's for new players who are unfamiliar with the Half Life universe - for anyone who has played through that saga, Portal preserves much the same sort of mystery by hinting strongly that it exists within the established universe but being coy with details such as when it takes place and how it influences the larger world. I'd walk on thin ice to talk any more about Bioshock (although I have acquired the game, now, so expect more informed analysis in the future), but my impressions of that game lead me to believe it also invests heavily in the backstory of the setting. Details like the frequently-referenced dancing couple are excellent examples of a focus on creating a rich, detailed atmosphere as a backdrop that continually informs the plot - and may in some cases, I would argue, be a more important component to the narrative experience than the plot is. I'd also make the claim that Halo 3 plays a very strong hand in terms of creating and engaging the audience with a substantial backstory. For the past several years, Microsoft and Bungie have invested an enormous amount of marketing capital into accessories to the Halo franchise: a series of paperback books (that aren't about the main characters of the game), a pair of world-class ARGs (again, detailing events that occur outside the scope of the games), and two incredible television campaigns for Halo 3 (Neill Blomkamp's three part series and the Believe campaign, which are remarkable in that they do not show content from the game or deal directly with the plot or characters from the game). The purpose of all of these products, aside from obviously generating awareness and excitement for the games, has been to expand the Halo universe. I think it's also worth noting that Halo 2 broke from the original's precedent to detail the social and religious organizations of the Covenant, drawing the focus of the narrative away from the simple Space Marine story and instead swinging our attention around to the explore the political landscape of the game world.

Are these games the first in history to include backstories? Of course not. But they raise the stakes, elevating the idea of narrative context and carefully designed atmosphere and its role in game design to a new height, much as Braben is - I can only assume - attempting to do with nonlinearity.

So, to conclude, David Braben's disparagement of Bioshock and Halo 3 is without qualification baseless and completely out of line. I wish it were more unusual for a developer or publisher to make this sort of outrageous claim in an attempt to draw attention to themselves, but the fact of the matter is that it's a common and effective tactic. Certainly it has brought The Outsider to my attention, and I will be curiously following its progress from now on. Any attempts to experiment and break new ground in any aspect of game design is welcome news to me. We'll just have to wait and see if the game can live up to the significant promises its designer has been making.

Turtles All the Way Down

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secondlife.pngI've spent the day playing "Still Alive" on endless repeat and obsessing endlessly about Weighted Companion Cube so this will be brief. I wanted to point to a couple things that have made the rounds in the past week on the off chance that anyone missed them, but then I'm probably going back to playing through Portal with the commentary on.

First and foremost, if you didn't see Raph Koster's stint as guest-writer over at Penny Arcade last Wednesday, you need to go read it now. He quickly sketches a design for a large-scale construction MMO, by all appearances off the top of his head, but I found the whole thing awe-inspiring. He takes an idea that, in its briefest form, holds absolutely no appeal to me, and makes it sound downright fun. I pulled a quote that I like: "Games are made out of smaller games – turtles all the way down... And for each game, we need to have a range of challenges. What’s more, ideally these challenges need to not be just 'beatable,' but they should be 'winnable with style.'" I think this is a great design paradigm for all sorts of games, not just MMOs. In any case, I have to stress again that you should really take the time to read his whole piece. It's extremely well written and made quite an impression on me.

If you're interested in reading more, there's an article over at Sexy Videogameland that also deals with the way MMOs are put together - specifically, all the attention that's currently being to making "sticky" gameplay experiences and compulsion loops. The author draws a connection between these sorts of compulsion loops (specifically used in a game I'm unfamiliar with named Kwari) and actual compulsive behavior, like gambling addiction. It's an interesting and disturbing train of thought, and it actually nicely summarizes why I tend to stay away from MMOs.

And lastly, Joystiq has a video of Will Wright doing a short Spore demo. What's it doing here? Well, Spore isn't multiplayer, but it is massively online, so that's something. If you've been following Spore, there's absolutely nothing here that you haven't seen before (and if you haven't been following Spore, then you should start doing so right away) but it's worth watching because, hey, Spore. Plus, it's a short video.

The Cake is Not a Lie

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wcc.pngPortal could be the best game of the year. I'm just going to put that out there right now. I know, I know; there's a lot coming out in the next two months that I'm pretty excited about. But even so. I'm pretty sure it's head and shoulders above anything that's come out so far, which is saying a hell of a lot. Better than Guitar Hero II; better than Phantom Hourglass; better than Halo 3; and speaking confidently without having played it, better than Bioshock. (Anything I'm overlooking?) These are all fantastic games, but I'm absolutely in love with Portal.

The game's best quality, without question, is its spectacular sense of humor. This is a pervasive aspect of the environment, and although it's strictly secondary to the gameplay (primarily taking the form of the unmistakable modulated voice-over you'll recognize from the advertising, as well as signage and graffiti decorating the game's levels) it absolutely makes the game. The game actually has a surprisingly varied emotional score - surprising for a puzzle game, certainly - with a fair bit of pathos thrown in, like the humor, almost off-handedly. The bit about the Weighted Companion Cube is brilliant. All of this contributes to the game's sense of style, which is excellent. Not the same caliber as Bioshock's, perhaps, but still very well done.

As for the gameplay itself, all of the fears I had about the game being more of a platformer than a puzzle game proved completely unfounded. Certainly there is an element of platforming, but that is almost never the focus of the game. There are threatening elements, but they exist primarily in service to the art direction; there's just enough to create a sense of danger, without ever making the player feel like they're fighting against the level designer. The levels are actually put together to be quite forgiving (the thing that really assuaged my worries is that the character doesn't take falling damage), which fits the general puzzles-first philosophy: the hard part is always figuring out what you have to do and how to make it work; once you have a solution, you might have to practice a couple times to get it right, but you don't have to worry too much about the execution. And when you do trip up on something, well, there are two things that come to your rescue: one, the game is generous with its save points, so dying has a relatively low cost; and two, the nature of the portals means that if you fall from the area you want to be in to an area you've already completed, nine times out of ten there's still a portal open up where you want to be, so getting back is trivial.

Let me say a couple things about the portals, while I'm at it. They're great. It's incredible how Valve could take a physics-based puzzle game, add a set of completely nonphysical interactions, and make the whole thing feel so damn intuitive. Partially it's the way they've put together the physics of the portals - the first time you see yourself through a portal across the room, or watch a cube bobbing up and down between two adjacent portals in the floor, you'll be amazed at how natural it seems. Mostly, though, it's a testament to the level design and difficulty progression, of which I have never seen the like. The game is divided into nineteen parts, but really it's seventeen tutorial levels, one practice level, and then the game proper. Each tutorial level teaches you something new - introducing you to an aspect of the environment or a skill - but almost all of it is taught by discovery. That is, unlike every other game I've ever played a tutorial level for, you are never explicitly told how to interact with the environment. The things you're supposed to learn aren't spelled out for you. That might sound intimidating, but it's done so skillfully, you hardly notice it. The pedagogical goal for each tutorial levels is so simple that it's easy to figure it out, but when you start using them all in combination it's breathtaking.

I'm also a big fan of some things that are more indirectly related to the game. The theme song, which plays in full over the credits, it by one of my all-time favorite artists and is one of his best. (If you're looking for the song, "Still Alive," there are several YouTube videos that include it, or you can find just the mp3. But be specifically warned, the song contains some spoilers, and you're really better off playing the game first.) There's an Aperture Science website that was launched a while ago as part of the marketing for the game (type "login", any username, with the password "portal" to apply to be a test subject, which is fun) but there's actually some extra content there for anyone who pays close attention in the game. (Again, watch out for spoilers on the website. If you really want to see it, use the username CJOHNSON and password TIER3 and you can read a history of Aperture Science. Spoilsport.) And, not least by any stretch, the Weighted Companion Cube has turned into a whole thing, which I could not be more pleased about. Rock, Paper, Shotgun, also excited, has been doing a fantastic job keeping track of it. They're reporting that Valve is planning to release a plush WCC sometime before Christmas, which will go great with my new wallpaper.

I probably don't need to gush any more, so I'll wrap up. In summary: if you inhabit space, have emotions, and if you have any interest in puzzle games at all, go play Portal right now. I can't personally vouch for any of the rest of the Orange Box yet, because I physically could not tear myself away from this game, but basically I can't imagine that you'd be disappointed with your purchase.

Technorati

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Just an administrative post to set up an account with Technorati. Nothing to see here, folks; please move along.

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Drunk on Power

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no-shoes.pngI've been sick, hence no post yesterday. I've got some things in the works, though, don't worry. In the meantime, head over to RPS for the latest (and possibly last) entry in the Worst Ninja series. Alec seems to have finally made it, thanks to a little luck and a lot of persistence. He's got the outfit; he's got the magical axe; he's even got a veritable menagerie of loyal companions. But how will he achieve the command of superior power? If you think the answer will be in any way satisfying, you haven't been paying attention to his coverage of Ultima Online. The conclusion to a fantastic series, and definitely worth a read.

Happy Orange Day!

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tf2.pngI don't know exactly why I'm so excited about the launch of Valve's Orange Box today, since I have no personal investment in the Half Life series and I won't even get to play the thing until later this month, when I trade the PS2 I've been using back for my 360. But I've been looking forward to Portal since, well, since the first time I heard about it. Which is a little ridiculous because, as much as I love to have a game take advantage of the ethereal nature of virtual worlds to screw with the laws of physics, there's good chance I'm not going to love the game itself. I'm trying to steel myself for a hardcore approach to spacial puzzles (read: platformer) with a killer difficulty curve. Even so, I can't help get excited about it.

But the point is, I've started to get excited about the other games included in this package. I'll finally get my chance to play Half Life 2, for one thing, which is supposed to have been the "Thinking Man's FPS" before Bioshock stole the title away. Episodes One and Two represent a step forward for episodic gaming, a cause to which I have been whole-heartedly converted. I love the style and aesthetic of Team Fortress 2, and by all accounts it's well balanced and a great deal of fun. And, quite frankly, whatever you think of these individual games, you have to admire the whole shebang. The contents display enough variety to appeal to a pretty decent range of tastes, and give everyone a chance to explore something they might not otherwise try.

Maybe more than anything else, this spoiler-free review of Episode Two by John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has got me itching to find out what I've been missing all these years. Whether or not you're a Half-Life fan, I'd recommend you check out the article, which heaps all sorts of eloquent praise on the game. John was impressed by its style and polish, among other things. "Better than any FPS before, Episode Two disguises its linearity not by presenting you with false choices, but by making the only path on offer the only path you’d ever want to take. Go back and you’ll realise there is only ever one route. But you still picked it." I'm always impressed by this sort of attention to level design, which is perhaps the keystone to creating an effective narrative experience in a linear game. By definition, linearity limits a player's ability to make choices, which can severely decrease the player's sense of agency. Designing a linear game that doesn't feel linear is an impressive feat, and it allows the game effective use of the entire range of agency-based emotions, from pride to helplessness to regret.

By any measure, it seems the Orange Box is scoring high marks. To make your Orange Day celebrations complete, I'd also like to point out the first Team Fortress 2 machinima that hit yesterday, also brought to you by Rock, Paper, Shotgun. General agreement seems to be that it runs long, but it's elegant and touching and occasionally pretty funny. I have a soft spot in my heart for machinima, probably because I desperately want it to be possible to put together a great film without a huge art budget, and possibly because I love to see what creative people can do with constraints. (My abiding affection for the Red vs. Blue series probably falls in there somewhere, too.) Certainly, TF2 seemed to treat this film well. I haven't played the game, so I don't know how the camera works, but I was personally pretty impressed by some of the cinematography that they pulled off.

Where Are the Life Sims?

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sims.pngI'd like to quickly draw your attention to an article by costik over at Play This Thing about a game called SpaceStationSim. I haven't had a chance to play the game, but the article's point about how the life sim has pretty much failed to develop as a genre caught my attention. It's true. Since the Sims was released in 2000 some of its design elements have found their way into other games in other genres, but the past seven years have produced very little in direct competition with that series. As costik mentions, Playboy Mansion is one counter example. I'd suggest that the Animal Crossing series contains something along much the same lines, although arguably it is not the focal point of the game. And The Movies certainly took a cue from The Sims, but at heart it is still, apparently like SpaceStationSim, a tycoon game.

So what's the deal? After the success of The Sims, why haven't other designers rushed to create new games in the same vein? Is the industry biased against this genre for some reason? Or is it not a genre at all, but just an unusually successful niche game? Is The Sims really such a tour-de-force that there's nothing left to be done to explore or expand the space it inhabits? Or, alternatively, have social-creative MMOs like Second Life exceeded The Sims in all of its unique qualities, effectively subsuming the genre? I have very little experience with The Sims, so in all honesty I can't answer that question; in all honesty, in fact, I have no answers for any of these questions. I suspect, however, that we will see more out of this genre in the future, and for whatever reason it is simply slow to grow into its own.
I just learned that people have been having trouble registering for an account to allow them to comment. My sincerest apologies - I'm new to this system and I'm attempting to make a lot of changes to customize the site in the coming weeks, which no doubt will cause more of these sorts of problems. In the meantime, I believe I've corrected the issue at hand, so you should be able to register, sign in, and comment in a sensible manner.

Nobler in the Mind?

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I was playing God of War this weekend; I've been playing quite a lot of it lately, because I'm finding it a very interesting and radically different experience, and I want to get through it before I'm overwhelmed by the fall lineup. I'll post some general thoughts on the game a little later, but the sections where the gameplay flips from brawler to platformer have gotten me thinking about death. On two occasions yesterday I played through an extremely short segment of the game between twenty and thirty times, trying to get past difficult platforming challenges, which unlike the rest of the game are unforgiving - a relatively minor misstep kills the player character - and do not scale well in difficulty. Kindly, God of War autosaves the player's progress just before these sections of the game, so the cost of dying is relatively low. Still, repeating the same actions twenty times - and being met, every time, with the words "You Are Dead" thrown up on the screen in blood red - pushed me to the limits of my patience. And rather suddenly I realized that I had entirely lost emotional connection with the game.

The issue of player character death is one of the most fundamental in modern game design - perhaps because modern games are so disproportionately focused on violence and death. In more general terms, the death of a player character can be equated to a game state from which it is not possible to complete the game. Placing fourth in Mario Kart is not not equivalent to dying, since it doesn't prevent you from completing the race; scoring too low in Elite Beat Agents is more or less equivalent to dying, because it prevents the player from continuing the game to completion. Whether or not it literally takes the form of a character's death, the way a game handles this sort of state has significant consequences on the narrative of the game. Some of these consequences are positive, and some are negative.

First of all, death is a great motivator. Competitive games have failure states built into them, providing a player with a clear goal ("win" or, alternatively for some games, "don't lose") and continual motivation to progress. Non-competitive games lack such an inherent motivator unless there is a constant threat of imminent failure. Of course, there are other ways to motivate players. The games of the Monkey Island series are prime examples of design that doesn't include the concept of character death or an equivalent failure state, and keeps the player motivated by rewarding progress with humor. Death is also a powerful narrative tool. The notion that the player character is risking their own life in order to achieve a goal amplifies the significance of their actions and can increase the player's emotional involvement. Some party-based RPGs, such as Knights of the Old Republic or Final Fantasy VII, even add emotional drama to the plot by using the death of a member of the party with narrative effect.

But the inclusion of player character death can also have negative consequences on the narrative, especially if it is implemented thoughtlessly. A character's death frequently breaks the continuity of the game, and triggers an extra layer of user interface (like God of War's "You Are Dead" screen) that prompts the player to try again. Trying again generally means restoring an earlier gamestate saved at an explicit or implicit savepoint - frequently at the beginning of the level or just before a particularly difficult section. The act of restoring the game's state effectively erases any progress the player had made past the savepoint, and implicitly asks the player to pretend, for narrative purposes, that the experience never happened. This disrupts the player's experience and forces them, to some extent, to disengage from the story, frequently at a moment when emotional engagement is especially high. If the cost of dying is low and it happens infrequently, then this disruption may be easy to ignore, but the effects are multiplied as the player grows frustrated.

I think it's fair to say that most games include some sort of death-like design element somewhere along traditional lines. But it's worthwhile to consider the many games that have taken a different tack, finding alternative ways to motivate the player. The new episodes of Sam & Max follow the same paradigm as the Monkey Island games, rewarding progress with humor. Puzzle Quest utilizes the inherent motivation of leveling by making level progression relatively rapid and providing a magic system that encourages the player to try out different play strategies. Animal Crossing relies on heavily on the collecting paradigm, and also draws upon social relationships to inspire the player to continue playing.

One of the most interesting examples of games that break from the traditional paradigm is Prey, in which player character death is presented in familiar terms, but doesn't actually represent a failure state or necessitate a break in narrative continuity. Contrast this which Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which attempts to mitigate the disruptive effects of death by integrating a narrative segue. In Prince of Persia, death still represents a failure state, and the game returns to a previous state and the player is required to try again. Myst is another extremely interesting example, in which the failure state can only be reached at one specific point in the game; throughout the rest of the game, there is no concept of death or death-like failure. In this game, exploration, imagery and story are the primary motivators, and death is used only for dramatic purposes.

I'm of the opinion that the games that don't include this sort of failure state tend to give the player a smoother and more accessible narrative experience. Of course, the issue whether or not to include player character death in a game, and how to handle it if it is included, depends entirely on the context of the game. God of War, while it does have a story and certainly puts a lot of energy into creating an absorbing narrative experience, is at heart an action-oriented, ultra-violent brawler. Death is an important aspect of the game and the traditional model is entirely appropriate. There are only a few segments where I feel the narrative disruption becomes especially problematic. The traditional model of death and failure is valid in many cases, but it's important for designers to recognize that it isn't universally implemented, nor is it universally applicable. These sorts of examples remind us that there are alternative ways to structure story, player motivation and gameplay, when death is not desirable.

The Best Ninja Ever

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no-shoes.pngI just saw the latest in an ongoing series called The Worst Ninja over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It details the trials and tribulations of a gamer determined to play Ultima Online without assistance. "Without assistance" is the key here, meaning the author is trying to learn how to play the game using just the included materials; no Googling, no asking for help. Unfortunately, the included materials are woefully inadequate, and hilarity ensues. I've never played Ultima, but I have enough experience with bad UI that I can sympathize. The writing is witty and biting, and whether you're specifically interested in interface design or just in need of a laugh, I'd highly recommend all three articles in the series thus far.

And so it begins...

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zelda.pngI just received a copy of Phantom Hourglass, marking the beginning of my decent into the madness that is the holiday release schedule. I've been looking forward to this game for a while, as I do with any Zelda title. I'm extremely interested to see how the touch controls work, and the extent to which they add value to the game. I have a hard time imagining myself actually using the annotated map functionality that I've seen demonstrated in trailers, but I'm hoping to be taken by surprise.
bioshock.png Some might take issue with a review of a game written by someone who hasn't played it. Especially when the game is as monumental as Bioshock. But if all bloggers restrained themselves from offering opinion simply because they didn't know what they were talking about, well, it would be a much smaller blogosphere. And I suppose I'm no different from the rest of them.

Although I've had some things to say about the game for some time, I'm particularly inspired to write this now in response to Jamie Antonisse's spoiler-free Bioshock review written earlier this week. All I've played of the game is the demo, but based on that experience, reading a range of posts and articles on the subject, and my conversations with other gamers (including Jamie) working their way through it, I feel like I've gotten a fair sense of the story and gameplay. Without the benefit of actually playing the thing, I may fall on the crutch of revealing the twists and turns of the plot. Readers beware, here may be spoilers.

I shared Jamie's initial disappointment with the linearly militaristic structure of the game. Bioshock seems to follow a traditional given-path philosophy of level design, where the player is presented with a bounded path through space that must be followed to the end. Along the way, the player encounters obstacles that block progress along the path, which must be overcome in order to continue. Typically, and in Bioshock it seems almost exclusively, these obstacles are enemies that have to be destroyed. What Bioshock does well is allow the player a lot of choice with respect to how those enemies are destroyed. What it fails to do is give the player significant alternatives to killing the enemies that bar the path, or deviate from the path.

Not that this is a bad thing; precisely this sort of given-path level design is historically and currently the industry standard for making games. But the context surrounding this particular game led me to expect more, particularly in the areas of player choice and narrative, where it received particular praise. And by making this sort of structural choice, the game necessarily limits player choice to specific domains: weapons systems and combat tactics. Don't get me wrong, it may handle player choice within these specific domains extremely well. I just can't help feeling confined by the small bounded space in which I can act freely.

I'm omitting a major game element here, and it's the one that gets the most press: the Little Sisters. Little Sisters pose a different sort of obstacle to the player, and offer the the opportunity to make a moral choice rather than a tactical one. Narratively speaking, this is much more interesting, especially if the player is aware of the all-or-nothing nature of the choice. The internal, emotional process of making a decision, above and beyond coming up with a solution to a short-term problem, is at the heart of what interactive media can offer the art of storytelling. Bioshock certainly captures this, and does it in a way that beautifully echoes the overarching objectivist themes. But again, the game's use of this choice mechanic is quite limited: disparate instances in which the player is asked to make essentially the same decision. And the consequences of this decision on the plot are disappointingly shallow, only seriously impacting the ending cinematic.

I will speak primarily about the plot and ignore some other aspects of the storytelling, since plot is an integral part of the narrative and also the most accessible to me without having played the game through. The plot is certainly rich and compelling, but not what I expected from a game that was marked as a milestone for story in games. It's chock full of twists and revelations, but these are of the same class of story elements that games have been drawing from for years. My personal love of overwrought science-fiction aside, I think it's telling how little of this sort of thing is found in the great works of other media.

So my fundamental question is, why has Bioshock been singled out to receive these accolades? Not that it isn't deserving of honors, but is it more deserving than other games? To what extent does it truly break new ground? It seems to me that other games have done more to push the envelope in areas such as designing game mechanics around player choice, incorporating agency and morality, painting a rich backdrop, and telling a compelling story. One thing that Bioshock does remarkably well is atmosphere; perhaps that's the key. The art direction for this game is awe inspiring, and certainly contributes to the way the story is told. This is a point on which Bioshock excels, and if that is the source of all its praise, then it's well deserved.

Still, I for one can't help but be a little disappointed by this modern masterwork of interactive media. It's hardly the revolution of emotion and story in games that was promised. So many of the key elements - a city full of crazed, violent survivors; an amnesic protagonist unwittingly fulfilling his destiny; the mentor's betrayal; epic battles against armor-plated behemoths; mind control - seem to be archetypes plucked from stories and genres that employ them specifically to fill out an otherwise ridiculously thin plot. I've been waiting for the advent of the character-driven drama in games, for story based around the interpersonal conflicts arising from the individual and sympathetic fears, desires, anxieties, and compulsions of the characters. Bioshock, for all that it does well, does not deliver that.

Onslaught

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jenga.pngThere are so many games launching now or in the next two months that I literally cannot keep track of them all. Seriously. On the plus side, I probably don't have to worry about being bored between now and March.

Here, take a look:

  • Halo 3 (360) - Perhaps the biggest blockbuster of them all, the marketing and buzz for this game have been deafening (albeit pleasantly so). Halo certainly has its share of problems - the level design is frequently terrible, and the narrative is not presented well, for instance - but I cut my cooperative teeth on it back in college, so the latest entry into the franchise gets a token must-play.
  • Orange Box (360) - I spent a long time without a gaming rig, so I still haven't played Valve's illustrious Half Life or its sequels. Now that there's a console version, I'm anxious to see what I've been missing. Plus, I've been looking forward to Portal for a good long while. (October 10)
  • Phantom Hourglass (DS) - This one is high on my list based on its lineage alone. I'm pleased to see another game in the cell-shaded style. I'm even more excited about a touch-based Zelda adventure. There's a lot of potential there, and I expect Nintendo to have realized some of it with this title. (October 4)
  • Rock Band (360) - Guitar Hero II was one of my favorite games of the past several years: a relatively simple concept put together exceedingly well. Add in some cooperative play and, well, I have very high hopes of Rock Band. (November 23)
  • Guitar Hero III (360) - See above, although to be honest, I'm expecting more from Harmonix than Neversoft. (October 28)
  • Beautiful Katamari (360) - I don't expect the game to add an enormous amount to the series, but I'm excited to have a Katamari game finally come to the 360. (October 15)
  • The Simpsons Game (360) - The buzz is all but nonexistant, so my official stance is "cautiously optimistic." Perhaps it's just another lousy movie tie-in, but there are certainly precedents for a great Simpsons game. (October 30)
  • Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) - Mario has always been fundamentally about platforming - a genre for which I have no great love - but Galaxy takes such a unique approach that I can't help but be intrigued. (November 12)
  • Super Smash Bros Brawl (Wii) - Smash Bros is a fantastic party game - at least if you're throwing a party for gamers. Which is exactly what I'm going to do when this game launches. (December 3)
  • Ace Attorney 3 (DS) - The Phoenix Wright series may be simple, but these games sandwich a fantastic sense of humor neatly between interactive fiction and old-school adventure games. (October 23)
  • Sam & Max: Season Two (PC) - I recently played Season One, and instantly bought into episodic delivery. To say nothing of a series of honest-to-God old-school adventure games with a wicked sense of humor, the potential of finishing a game within two or three hours is breath-taking. I do not finish 90% of the games I play. The week that I purchased Season One of Sam & Max, I finished six. The emotional significance of that fact should not be underestimated. (November 8)
  • Assassin's Creed (360) - Since it was first announced, I've been hoping this would prove to be a spiritual successor to the wonderful Sands of Time. I'm still holding out that hope, and all the coverage I've seen seems to bear it out. The environment and animations look stunning, and I can't wait to explore the large-crowd AI. (November)
  • Mass Effect (360) - Absolutely the game I am most looking forward to this season. The dialog system is along lines I've been waiting for the industry to pick up for quite some time. And while it may be drawing criticism from some camps, I've always been an enormous fan of BioWare's real-time/turn-based hybrid action model, so I'm glad to see it intact. Quite honestly, I cannot do my excitement over this game justice. Let me simply say: I am extremely excited about this game. (November 20)
ready.pngThe Softcore Gamer blog is something I've been wanting to start for a while now. I got the idea when I realized that the games industry is broken.

Many people will acknowledge it, even if they love games and have trouble describing precisely what's wrong. I'm not claiming that I have a solution to the problem, or even that I can fully illuminate the problem. But I do have some ideas, and I'd like to share them with you.

The gamer has evolved over the past twenty-five years, and the industry as a whole has struggled to keep up. The population of gamers in the United States is greater than it's ever been before. The mean age of gamers is increasing, the number of gamers over 50 is increasing, and the number of women playing games is increasing. But at the same time, soaring development costs have led to shorter games, reduced emphasis on story and gameplay, and a zero-tolerance attitude toward failure that necessitates a minimization of risk.

These hi-def, low-risk games are targeted toward the "core gamer" demographic. Core gamers are typically young and male. They want action, they want violence, and they want competition. They play a lot of first-person shooters and sports titles, and they've demonstrated that they don't mind repetitive content. They're willing to pay a high premium for incremental advances in graphics and interface. They also grow up to be game designers.

This is the audience that the games industry is courting, as well it should. The core gamer demographic is a lucrative market. But where's the long tail of video games? The current culture, which tends to invest heavily in proven franchises or genres, discourages the production of lower-cost niche titles or unconventional games that are unlikely to capture the core gamer demographic.

According to the ESA, 38% of gamers are women. But that figure is misleading. If you limit yourself to mainstream games - games targeted to core gamers, with high production quality and wide release on physical media - the percentage of female gamers decreases significantly. On the other hand, if you look to the major players in the industry - well-known design teams, console manufacturers publishing first-party titles, and publishers with a long history in games - and examine the number of games they release outside the mainstream, the figure is similarly low.

This doesn't apply just to women, but to any group that finds itself primarily outside the core gamer demographic. The people who are serious about making games aren't making games for us.

In the follow-up, I'll talk about what it means to be a softcore gamer, and what significance it has to the games industry. I'll also mention some of the industry's current trends away from a traditional core gamer audience, and how that may impact the industry in the future.