Since I quietly reopened this blog, I've been kicking a thought around in my head. It keeps coming back to me, even when I think I've given up on it, so there must be something there. I think I've had trouble figuring out how to write about it, because it seems to touch a lot of things. But I'm going to try.
There's an ongoing question of what drives us. It's been a part of writing this blog over the years; it's part of any deep examination of ourselves and what we do; our behaviors. Games are behavior. Making them is behavior. What's begun to interest me is not so much what games "are," or what they "should be," or why we're compelled to play them or make them, but, being so compelled, what values we uphold when going about these behaviors. What I keep coming back to is the value of respect.
Respect, I think, is at the crux of every interaction we have in life. Respect toward others determines whether a child is bullied or not; whether someone is robbed or not; whether a discussion becomes an argument, or an argument an altercation, or an altercation a murder. Respecting others is seeing yourself in them. Mutual respect between peers is the foundation of a healthy and long-lasting relationship, which leads to everything else. The golden rule. So on and so forth.
These observations are nothing new, but they seem to be at the center of everything in our lives. They determine how we interact with the world, and therefore who we are. And so conducting oneself in a way that shows respect to others would seem to be the utmost value one should uphold in all things. It's worth considering what this means, not just in big, overt interactions like those mentioned above, but in small, indirect ones, too-- how we impact people through what we do, even people we might never meet.
Games are made up of interactions. And the game itself, the artifact, is an interaction between the designer and the player. What is respectfulness in this sphere?
One aspect concerns the rules of the game itself, and how they regard the player. If there is any resource in our lives that has value above all others, it must be time. Time is something we never get back. We live, then we die; how we spend the time in between is the only thing with real, irreplaceable value. All other resources-- money, energy-- are means to the end of spending that time in a way that we find rewarding.
And so any game mechanic that willfully wastes the player's time inherently disrespects the players themselves, by stealing away something they can never get back. This exploitation takes many forms: "grinding," wherein the next gameplay milestone is delayed only by repetitive, meaningless action (a "timesink," as opposed to a meaningful decision or display of skill.) Or unskippable story sequences, requiring the player to watch for minutes just to get to more play, whether they want to or not (this lack of the ability to opt-out serving the storyteller's ego, not the player.) Or the "energy" mechanics in "freemium" games, whereby you can only perform so many actions per hour before you must wait to play more... or spend money to be able to play more right now. In other words, trading your money in exchange for your time. Clearly one of those resources is more inherently valuable to the player than the other; these freemium games exploit this dichotomy willfully, to their own ends, not the player's.
That is what it comes down to: making design decisions in the interest of the player, not the developer. A fair exchange of value is respectful; creating a play experience which is inherently valuable to the player, and requesting a fair price in return is respectful. Taking someone's money with the promise of a valuable experience, then wasting their time or trying to extract more money once they've already paid is just the opposite. Everyone wants to be respected: you, and your players. Uphold your end of the bargain.
It's kind of absurd to have to come all the way back around to this conclusion. All I'm describing is commerce as it's existed for thousands of years. A valuable product for a fair price; any less is a swindle, or robbery. But in this day and age the form that a "product" can take, and the methods by which value can be compromised, are constantly expanding and morphing. It's worth remembering that any decision made expressly in the interest of the developer's personal gain-- "this is so the player will pay more in microtransactions; this is so the player will keep playing longer instead of trading in their game"-- compromises the core value proposition, the thing they've paid for, and breeds a rightly suspicious player. Respect, on the other hand, breeds respect-- customer loyalty, through trust not coercion.
We can show respect to others through many aspects of our lives. In our personal relationships with friends and family, clearly; in our interactions with strangers in public; in supporting equal rights for all people, whether they're exactly like ourselves or not; and, if we're going to develop games, in the experiences we craft for players, and what we ask in return. The respect you give your players will come back to you; it will make having made the thing worthwhile.
Since I quietly reopened this blog, I've been kicking a thought around in my head. It keeps coming back to me, even when I think I've given up on it, so there must be something there. I think I've had trouble figuring out how to write about it, because it seems to touch a lot of things. But I'm going to try.
Here are some games I played in 2011.
Alchemy is a dark art, but a romantic one. Who doesn't love the idea of combining disparate, arcane elements, and, surprise!, coming away with something new and valuable and beautiful? Maybe it's why some people love crafting in games so much. Maybe it's part of why Minecraft is so popular. Maybe it's why we care about "emergent gameplay" at all. Surprising combinations. The joy of discovery.
It's certainly why I loved The Binding of Isaac, an incredibly clever exercise in game design alchemy by Edmund McMillen. Roguelikes have made a resurgence in recent years, what with Spelunker-meets-Rogue, Star Trek-meets-Rogue, and that whole subgenre of indie games with "Dungeons" in their titles popping up. It's easy to feel jaded about the prospect of another Roguelike. But Binding of Isaac brought an incredibly deep and unexpected reference to the table-- Legend of Zelda 1 dungeons-meets-Rogue-- propped up by a supremely strange and unexpected fictional conceit involving religious extremism, mental illness, child abuse, and plenty of scatophilia. Sounds like a kick, don't it? Well, it is a lot of fun, and incredibly interesting, if you can take it.
Mechanically, it's a stoke of genius. Who would've thought of basing a Roguelike on Zelda 1 dungeons, really? I'm thinking probably nobody, save for apparently McMillen. And it works insanely well. The small size, simplicity, and open-endedness of the dungeons sync up perfectly with the randomnization, replayabilty, and pacing of a Roguelike. The dungeons being broken up into individual, single-screen rooms makes them easily parsable, and separates them into a series of digestible micro-challenges. The individual elements of the dungeons-- bombs, rocks, holes in the floor, walls, monsters, etc., all combine to create a huge amount of discoverability. Discovering, for instance, that using a bomb to blow up a rock throws debris into the next tile over from the rock, which can then fill holes in the floor acting as a footbridge to otherwise inaccessible areas, was a revelation. Physics come into play in a way that they never could in Zelda on the NES, and new, weird shrines and items-- generally left completely unexplained, until you use them and find out what they do for yourself-- are constantly being discovered as you explore. The balance of the rate that items which increase your health or speed or damage output are dispensed, and the overall short length of a single campaign, tend to make each playthrough feel "doable," which is super important in a genre that prominently features permadeath. In this way, the game is quite forgiving, for a Roguelike. I didn't often end up in situations that I thought were just completely unwinnable. You can get a run of bad luck, making your character too weak to easily survive the deeper levels (but not generally be completely, irrevocably fucked,) or you can have an insanely good run, where you end up with 99 bombs and hundreds of coins, and still fuck it up and die. And you know it's your fault. Pitch-perfect game design, all around.
That said, the game sure has a lot of poop and piss and aborted babies in it. Which, for a game that encourages you to play and replay and replay again, can get pretty tiresome. Or at least it did for me. I get it, you play as an abused child locked in a basement, battling his unwanted, deformed siblings. That's interesting. And there's poops everywhere. Oh. And you use your tears and urine as weapons. Ha ha, hmm. One of the powerups is a bent coathanger through your head! Wow! It's dark, it's gross, it's junior high levels of transgressiveness. But, once you get past the shock of the new that comes with such an unheard-of premise, it becomes kind of really dumb and distracting. Or, again, it is to me, anyway. I respect McMillen for going all-in on his chosen aesthetic, but like a lot of things I "respect" or "appreciate," it's not something I actually personally enjoy.
So, would I have played way more hours of Binding of Isaac if it just had a simple sprite swap throughout? Yeah, probably. I would for sure appreciate a new, less poopy-and-pee-pee slathered coat of paint. All things considered, I think the current crusting of filth more than anything serves to obscure the potential longevity of this utterly brilliant game design.
Of course, it hasn't stopped some people from playing a crazy number of hours.
So maybe I'm just wrong.
Deus Ex Human Revolution
Have you ever wanted to upgrade a cyborg? I have. Very few video games (or other experiences in life) have allowed me to do so. But by god, Deus Ex Human Revolution is just one such game or experience. And if you're anything like me, that means a lot.
Because, I don't know about you, but tuning and tweaking the capabilities of something half man, half machine just does something for me. Maybe it's a weird psychological thing about control and capability. You know, what if your body weren't this juice-filled weird thing you had to like, exercise and train to kind of vaguely push in the direction you want, but you could just take it down to the goddamn shop and put some spoilers on it? Or wire up a double-kill with your arm swords by slugging down some Praxis Kits, and now there you are moments later, double-stabbing dudes to your heart's delight? It's a beautiful vision of life.
So yeah, I was psyched when I heard that the Deus Ex 3 team had decided to go prequel. Probably the most interesting characters in Deus Ex 1 were Anna Navarre and Gunther Herman, the two cyborg agents on their way out in the coming age of nanotechnology. Their dedication to the cause demonstrated by their willingness to mangle their bodies with invasive cybernetics, and their bosses' lack of hesitation to throw them headfirst at a deadly nano-powered superagent due to their obsolescence, was a multifaceted and very human use of cyberpunk tropes. Thinking about Adam Jensen in the timeline, that he is, logically, headed down the same path-- that by the time 2052 rolls around, he'll be just another rusted relic-- gives Human Revolution a bit of a tragic subtext, a degree of subtlety that's generally missing from the frontstory except in a few rare, exceptional cases (like the deep unspoken respect shown between Jensen and his pilot, Malik, or the fairly complex, fatherly relationship between Jensen and his boss, Sarif.)
The world that Eidos Montreal brought together for the game is a real cyberpunk wonderland; Hengsha city in particular completely engulfs the player in the sights and sounds of an overstuffed, stylized but semi-plausible near-future. It's not groundbreaking or even that wildly creative, but it is satisfying. Sometimes just taking the standard tropes and putting them onscreen for the player to come in direct contact with is super valuable. The heavily augmented street thugs lurking in the margins, the packed dance club pulsing with a distorted electronic beat, the hive of single-occupancy capsule apartments, "coffins" straight out of William Gibson's Sprawl-- they have a familiarity and campiness to them that feels warm and inviting. It's fanservice for a certain brand of geek, and it's done with such a loving and earnest tone that I fell right into it. Sometimes you just want to walk your cyborg over to a bustling noodle bar-- kind of like the one in Blade Runner!-- and take in the sights and sounds and the feel of that place. And then maybe you want to crawl through a vent and hack a computer to find the keycode to a safe that you open and there's enough cash inside to to buy another Praxis kit from the LIMB Clinic so you can finally get the augment that will let you turn bots to your side... and it just feels like home.
End of the day, whatever. A game lets me upgrade a nasty revolver and hold it in my cyber hands? I'm down. Forever.
Free to play is increasingly a thing. Freemium, even, one might say. I started to type, "I don't think this is inherently a good or bad thing," but actually, I kind of do think it's inherently a bad thing, usually. Others have written more thoughtfully and at length about the freemium phenomenon, but I'll just say here that I agree generally that constant, overt monetization of every micro-bit of a game is strongly deterimental to the player experience. It's obtrusive and annoying. I don't like it. It's not inherently a GOOD thing, that's for sure.
But, that said, I have seen some of the advantages. For instance, if it hadn't gone free to play, I never would have tried APB. And if I'd never tried APB, they never would've gotten a dime out of me. In the end, GamersFirst got $15, and I got about 30 hours of gameplay. Win-win. I think.
This mostly comes down to my abiding love for character customization. I love-- LOVE-- character customization, especially in a modern, non-fantasy, non-sci-fi setting like Rock Band or, say, APB, a PVP-focused, MMO-lite version of Grand Theft Auto. I'd heard about its disastrous initial launch and the closing of Realtime Worlds, none of which really screamed "pay money up front for this." But when APB was revived as a free to play proposition, and showed up on Steam, I went for it.
And I'm glad I did. The customization suite is INSANE. The tattoo editor alone is off the charts-- you can combine, scale, recolor, and layer individual stamps into your own super complex designs, then etch them onto your character aligned to the normals of the surface, or properly wrapped around their arm or leg or waist, flipped, turned, mirrored... it's all there. And it's not like, oh, a couple of designs. You can have up to 50 separate tattoos with up to 100 components... if you shell out for a monthlong Premium subscription. That's where they get you.
A month of premium is 12 bucks, but they only sell GamersFirst Spacebux in increments of $5 (that's also how they get you,) so I shelled out my $15 and spent the remainder on new sheets of tattoo designs. Then I just went to town. Probably half my time in APB was spent the in character creator, and I'm not complaining.
The other half was spent in the actual game, which is in fact quite good... sometimes. (I'll get to that.) Mechanically, it mostly consists of you flagging on "ready for mission" while wandering a city district, then being automatically grouped with other players, and automatically pitted against a team of players from the opposite faction, charged with either completing your own goals or stopping the opposing team from completing theirs. It's plenty of fun, jumping in a car with your teammate, the other guy hanging out the window doing drivebys while you try to run over the enemy team and dive into the objective zone. I daresay it's better multiplayer GTA than GTA4 was.
Here's the sad part, though: I'd probably still be playing it today, if it weren't a complete technical nightmare. APB Reloaded must have one of the least efficient engines I've ever encountered. Load times take forever, but worse than that, I would get enormous hitching and chugging all the time. Often it seemed to be tied to enemy player proximity-- possibly due to all that unique character customization being loaded into memory?-- which was basically the worst case scenario. "Oh there must be enemies nearby because I'm running at 1 frame per second... ah yes, sounds of gunfire, I'm dead." Apparently the hitching wasn't so bad for the guys that killed me while I was lagged out. Add onto this the fact that your computer is unusable for about 5 minutes after you exit the client, presumably while it cleans itself out of memory and exits all its processes, and you have some serious, recurring technical annoyances. So, after I felt I'd pushed my character customization a fair way toward what I wanted, and after a serious hitching-related ragequit (followed by walking away from my computer for 5 minutes while it was in its post-APB recovery phase,) I deleted local content and didn't reinstall. In a different world, I would've played more to unlock more pieces of clothing and accessories to make my character just perfect, but the technical failures were too much for me. I had to settle for my character being "good enough."
But, so it goes. All things considered, am I unhappy that the freemium model allowed me a low-risk method of trying out this game, and that I opted into paying $15, with 30+ hours of gameplay in exchange? No, not at all, annoyances aside. So, I guess I'd say freemium isn't inherently a good or bad thing.
Infinity Blade/Jetpack Joyride/Tiny Tower
Here's the opposite side of the microtransaction revolution. The dark side.
I got an iPad in 2011, in large part because I wanted to keep up with the games that have been coming out on it. I started trying stuff out-- Angry Birds (ad supported,) Plants Versus Zombies (which I'd played on PC already, but you know,) even grabbed a SpiderWeb Software RPG to see how it played. And then I got into the real freemium/microtransaction territory. And stuff got bad.
It's innocuous at first. "Hey, try it for free. It'll be fun." You know, like a drug dealer in an afterschool special? And it does seem like some harmless fun, a simple set of mechanics, some satisfying clicking and sparkly rewards. Infinity Blade: fight an enemy! Get loot and XP! Level up! Jetpack Joyride: get as far as you can without hitting an obstacle! Buy new gear! Beat your high score! Tiny Tower: build shops and apartments! Find people their dream jobs! Expand your tower! They all make good first impressions.
But it quickly becomes clear that these games are shallow as a thimble. One game design mantra is finding "30 seconds of fun." In a firstperson shooter, that's an engaging encounter with an enemy. You encounter an enemy, have 30 seconds of fun, do variations on that a few hundred times over the course of the game, and you've got your core. The more different 30 seconds of fun you have in your game the better, to a point: looting containers, buying and selling equipment, distributing XP into your skills, and so on.
But with the iOS games in question, if you've played through their core loop once, you've played the entire game, period. There are no unique new mechanics introduced. No clever new puzzles. No story or characters to discover or unique environments to explore. Just the same thing, over and over, with the numbers going up and the visuals changing slightly the longer you play.
So why play past the first 30 seconds? And why pay any money? So that you don't have to play that same 30 seconds over and over as many times before you can see those numbers go up and those visuals change. You can earn gold to get better equipment in Infinity Blade by grinding through repetitive encounters... or you can pay real money for gold and just buy that better equipment outright. Same with paying real money for TowerBux in Tiny Tower or coins in Jetpack Joyride. Grind through the tedium of this repetitive experience for hours... or just give us your money right now.
It's an exploitative practice, and a self-incriminating one at that: what you're paying money for is the ability to play less of the actual game, so you can more quickly get further in the game you're willing to pay real, actual money to play less of. It's an admittance of the game's own hollowness. So if you're willing to pay money to play less of this game, why play it at all? Why not shake yourself out of the haze of compulsion, delete the game off your device and pretend it never happened? That's what I did anyway.
And I'll admit, I am susceptible to the draw. See above, regarding my APB Reloaded story. The draw of the end result, the extrinsic reward of that perfectly customized character I wanted to see onscreen, was so strong that I was willing to play hours and hours of repetitive missions, through hair-pulling technical problems, to get at it. Achieving the golden jetpack or the 100 floor tower or the ultimate sword in these iOS games is no different. And I really do feel it's harmful, manipulative and frankly unconscionable.
Why were all those costume bits and tattoo designs in APB only unlockable after I'd played through a certain number of missions (read: certain number of hours?) To force you to keep playing, and keep coming back, to get what you want: the cool accessory, the awesome rims for your car. These are just cosmetic items. They have no impact on balance, they're not part of the game ramp. Having 100 tattoos in the first hour wouldn't make me overpowered in PVP. There's no functional reason to gate them. But they're not available up front because...? Because then you might just play once for a few hours, make the character you want, spend no money, and never play again. And then where would all that microtransaction money come from?
No different in these iOS games. Why does it take exponentially more realtime hours to build the 20th floor of your Tiny Tower than the second? There's no intrinsic gameplay balance or experiential reason. It's purely to increase the tedium of the experience over time, encouraging you through boredom to pay up your real cash to skip the wait. And when a game starts messing with me like that, trying to manipulate and exploit me, I get offended. Offended that the game would think so little of me as an individual. I disengage. Uninstall. Done.
But I realize I'm lucky. Susceptibility to compulsive behavior is a function of the individual's brain chemistry: if taking a certain Parkinson's drug can cause gambling addiction, then certainly your unique brain chemistry may make you less able to put down a compulsion-fueling game than I am. And intentionally, nakedly exploiting the brain chemistry of your players to extract money from them... it's not so far down the spectrum from offering a kid a free hit, hoping that they'll get hooked and become a regular customer. You know, like a drug dealer in an afterschool special. Or in real life.
So when Jon Blow or Adam Saltsman: talks about this stuff being inherently bad, I see exactly where they're coming from. These practices tangibly hurt people, in one of the few ways that a video game can, by psychologically manipulating them to hand over their time, attention, and money for something with no intrinsic value. If you aren't making a game experience that is itself something that people will pay to have, if you need to withhold meaningless rewards from them until they submit, you aren't making a game. I don't know exactly what you're making, and frankly I'm not sure you do either. But I know what I want to make. And it's not that.
Disclaimer: I'm friends with Greg Kasavin, the writer and creative lead of Bastion. We worked at 2K at the same time, and I've known him since my zine days, so there's that. But, no matter: Bastion is a great, great game, period.
Here's where most chatter about Bastion starts: the voice. There is something about the human voice as a buoying element in games. I think people just like hearing someone talk while they play.
Yeah, tons of games are nearly or completely wordless, and the more powerful for it-- Ico, Limbo, classic Metroid games (prior to the current generation.) But there's a whole other class of games on the opposite end of the scale, where someone's talking to you almost constantly while you play. The talk radio stations in GTA. The audio diaries and public announcements in BioShock. GlaDOS. It's all about being in-game, parallel to the player's own actions: when dialogue in a cutscene starts, nine times out of ten I reach for my phone and check Twitter. But when your party members are chattering while you walk around the gameworld in a BioWare RPG, or when Price (I think?) is talking you through All Ghilied Up in COD4, or when you're driving around in Deadly Premonition and York is talking to himself about Back to the Future... that stuff's great. It has a pull. It's a unique sensation.
I think that's why people latched onto the narration in Bastion so strongly. It's not just someone talking while you play, but someone talking about WHAT you're doing, WHEN you do it. It's a great flourish, and I did like it... but it's unfortunate that it overshadows what I think is actually strongest about the game, which is its incredibly clever and well-considered suite of systems surrounding the core gameplay and story.
Bastion is a game about building your character, and rebuilding the gameworld as you go. These work together-- rebuild part of the Bastion, get access to a new system that supports building your character. And what systems they are. Weapon upgrades? A perfectly balanced set of binary choices leading either to a highly specialized or broadly useful weapon. The Tonic system? An array of wonderfully differentiated and carefully staged passive abilities, resulting in just the type of character you want to play. And the Shrine system deserves special mention: a completely opt-in series of game difficulty modifiers that each make the experience more challenging in diabolical ways, while offering commensurate XP gain. Each system is highly modular and no decision is permanent, encouraging ongoing experimentation and as much or as little investment in each as you want.
So the narration and story stuff is great. And the final story choice you make is really thought-provoking. But none of this would matter if these narrative elements weren't supporting a game whose systems were firing on all cylinders. Bastion has both going for it. It's the full package.
As a video game player, it's nice to be reminded every once in a while that you're not an idiot.
Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of games that expect you to think like an adult human with a brain. Some came out this year, even, such as SpaceChem and Atom Zombie Smasher and English Country Tune.
But as a player of more mainstream fare, where you control a Dude and kill tons of enemies with your weapons and abilities, it's not hard to get the feeling that video game designers think that maybe you're a little developmentally disabled, or have had some head trauma, or maybe you're texting or watching a youtube while you play. Because they sure aren't expecting you to be using 100% of a capable adult's mental capacity to progress through what they've designed.
It quickly starts feeling very deterministic. Press the thumbstick in the direction of the goal arrow. Press the button to jump over the gap. Jam on the button to complete the quicktime event and win the cutscene. It's not a question of skill or understanding or deduction; it's simply a willingness to keep going through the motions until the credits roll.
Well, there's nothing deterministic about Dark Souls. There is no guarantee that you will see the end credits of this game, that's for damn sure. I mean, I haven't. And I loved the game. In the end, it wore me out. It won. I got to that evil fucking sequence in Anor Lando with the two guys throwing lances and I had a fair idea of what I'd have to do to clear them but I just wasn't up to it. My character died and stayed dead. The end.
But that's just why I loved the game so much-- it actually had high expectations of me. And I worked hard to fulfill them for a long time. When the first Black Knight in Undead Burg one-shotted me? I came back, played defensive, and wore him down bit by bit instead of rushing in headlong. When I died to the Drake's flames on the bridge multiple times? I slowed down, observed, and found the alcove on the side I could run to between flame blasts. When I fell in a hole in the sewer and got cursed by those godawful frogs? I went on an epic fucking odyssey to restore the 50% max health I'd lost.
All this because I really appreciated that the game was actually demanding, and I really appreciated what it demanded: not twitch reflexes, a willingness to grind, or the money to pay in for top-tier freemium items, but more fundamental qualities: patience, observation, and dedication. It doesn't bother me that in the end I didn't have enough of these to see it through, because it just shows that I really was challenging myself to accomplish something I wasn't guaranteed to achieve-- that, unlike so many games, Dark Souls is a mountain that not just anyone can climb. But I enjoyed and appreciated climbing as high as I could.
Thanks for reading, thanks for playing, and here's to 2012!
I'm currently reading Uzumaki by Junji Ito, a horror manga where supernatural phenomena revolve around spiral patterns. I find it to be more of dark humor than truly frightening, but that's okay. It's a fun, strange, and often really gross read. But aside from the specific content, I appreciate the approach Ito takes in creating his own twisted take on the modern world. It's a technique used often; this work just brought it to mind.
Uzumaki is a series of stories that take place in a small Japanese coastal town where people go about their lives and everything functions normally-- except that the town has somehow mysteriously been "infected by the Spiral." One man becomes obsessed with the spiral, until he is drawn in so deeply that he contorts his body itself into a spiral form, losing his life in the process. When he is cremated, the smoke rises into the sky, causing a spiral in the clouds that transfixes the town's residents. Unsettling whirlwinds spiral through the town; locks of girls' hair spiral and take on a life of their own; the spiral stairway of a lighthouse leads residents to their death. The spiral is everywhere, and it makes life in our world different, scary, and surprising.
It's a way of thinking that many artists possess, and that leads us to follow them into their imagined works: the power of visualization, not to take the world around them for granted, but to picture, "what if things were different?" It connects straight back to how we see the world as children. Before we know how everything around us works, and we settle into static assumptions about our surroudings, the possibilities are endless. It's the fertile ground in which imagination grows. Could there be a monster in the closet or under the bed? No reason there couldn't be, so maybe there is! Could aliens come down out of the sky? Could dogs and cats talk to each other when people aren't around? Could there be ghosts and angels everywhere, that we just can't see? Could another world exist on the other side of the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole? Before we knew it couldn't, it could, and we imagined, "what if this IS the way the world works?"
This kind of functional question, explored in fiction like Uzumaki, engages directly with the rules of our world. It disrupts them, adds in a variable, and explores the implications. In that sense, this sort of imaginative journey maps directly to games. It changes the ruleset of ordinary life, and games are all about rules. The sense of discovery is the same, when you first get your hands on a new game and explore how it works: what do the buttons do? What can I pick up and climb onto and go inside of and affect in this world? How does everything work? Once you've become comfortable in that gameworld, and all its possibilities are exhausted, the newness and sense of discovery fades away.
But the artist continues to see new possibilities. And in that way, game designers can take the world we know, imagine if it worked differently, and then by abstracting and implementing those rules in a game, allow players to experience the possibilities they've imagined. Working backwards, having come in contact with this new and unexpected vision of our own world, the player can return to their familiar assumptions, and question them just a bit more.
If you've read Uzumaki, you probably didn't think about spirals the same way for a while when you encountered them in your daily life. And if you've played Katamari Damacy, maybe you had trouble driving for a while without thinking about rolling up traffic cones. Maybe you enter the lobby of the public library and think what you'd use for cover if the Covenant were to attack, or start noticing great hiding spots for GTA's Hidden Packages as you wander around the city.
All of us should be so lucky as to retain our sense of wonder and infinite possibility from childhood; the best games show us possibilities we never would've imagined, let us play with them, internalize them, and bring them back into our own world, imagining, "what if?"
In small but important ways, contact with inspiring gameworlds transforms our everyday into something just a little bit less ordinary.
This past weekend I was lucky enough to participate in the first annual Practice Conference at NYU. I gave a talk on level design technique and wanted to share it here. So please click through to the presentation on Slideshare and be sure to click the "Speaker Notes" button beneath the slideshow. This way you can read through the presentation along with the illustrations.
Here's the presentation.
You can also download the .ppt directly from Slideshare if you prefer to view it offline.
Thanks to Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman and everyone at NYU for inviting me, and to all the incredibly smart and inspiring designers I met there. It was a fascinating event and I'm really glad to have taken part. Hope to be there again next year!
"Humanity, loss, race, friendship, acceptance - heavy topics for any medium, and especially difficult for videogames. After finishing , these are the things I'm contemplating regardless."
So, a couple of weeks ago, Minerva's Den, the story-based DLC for BioShock 2, was made available on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. This gives me some stuff to talk about.
Firstly, the response has been quite positive, for which I am very grateful. We're up there near the top of the highest rated add-ons on Xbox Live, and last I checked we had 200+ reviews on PSN with an average user rating of 4.96 stars out of 5. Can't really ask for more than that.
It's encouraging because, as DLC, we were a small team without a ton of resources. I'm insanely proud of what our team accomplished, and I think our success was based on having scoped the project appropriately for the amount of time and personnel we had. The story in particular was designed to be told as economically as possible from the ground up, and yet we seem to have connected with people despite a lack of flash.
The ending seems to garner the most attention on this front, even though the reveal is two stillframes on a monitor screen and a couple of voice clips, and the denouement which many people have called very emotional is nothing but some empty rooms and an audio diary, followed by a narrated 4-frame slideshow.
The key, I think, is in trying to tell a personal story-- something that followed the arc of an individual's life, and illustrated his getting through a particular trauma. The specifics are very sci-fi, but the core themes of loss and longing are intended to be universal. I think that on some basic human level it's very easy to put oneself in Porter's shoes, and so the impact of his plight comes across intuitively.
Race is one issue in the DLC that, while touched on very lightly in the actual content, has been brought up frequently in the reviews and other responses I've seen online as a central component of the experience. The guide character is a black man: Charles Milton Porter, a groundbreaking computer scientist. His race is only mentioned once, in the audio diary "How to Get Ahead," and otherwise goes unaddressed. I think it's the kind of thing where the issue of race hangs over the experience implicitly, and that one single point of acknowledgment carries with it much broader implications that were already in the player's mind. I found the response on this point interesting, anyway, largely because I never thought of that diary as being a big deal when I wrote it, so it made me take pause and try to analyze just why it's struck a chord.
As a side note, I've been monitoring responses to the DLC by searching for keywords on Twitter and Facebook, and it's been interesting for me to see the relatively high representation of female players posting their thoughts on Minerva's Den. Rachel suggests that this might be attributable in part to female users having a greater tendency to post on social networking sites in general. Nonetheless, it's nice to see a relatively high volume of responses from players who don't precisely fit the typical FPS-playing demographic. One likes to think that they've made something that can be relevant to people who aren't exactly like themselves.
In any case, I want to take this opportunity once again to thank the immensely talented team that poured so much hard work into making Minerva's Den a reality, and to thank everyone that's taken the time to play it. This is the first project that I've led, and as writer and lead designer, it's kind of my baby; it means so much to me to know that people are enjoying the experience of playing through the thing. I should also thank Zak McClendon, Jordan Thomas, and the rest of the management at 2K Marin for giving me and my team this great opportunity. Check out the Secrets of Minerva's Den on the Cult of Rapture to see who else worked full-time making great content for the DLC (as well as finding out about some obscure Easter eggs and in-jokes.)
Finally, you might have (though almost certainly haven't) noticed a slight change to the blog: the daruma in the header image, one-eyed for so many years, has finally earned his second pupil. Okay, so it's a crappy clonebrush job in the header image, but his real-life counterpart, which I've had since college, also has depth perception now.
In a lot of ways, this kind of closes the loop on this blog: Fullbright began in 2006 as a progress journal for the very first amateur FPS levels I made, right out of college; it was aspirational, meant to keep me honest and encourage me to keep working toward my dream. In the interim I banged the drum about games being smaller, shorter, more digestible experiences; telling more personal stories at an individual scale; of maintaining a focus on fidelity and immersion despite a more modest overall scope and team size. And now I've managed to lead Minerva's Den, a product which arguably upholds all of the above values.
DLC benefits from the stable base of a AAA game to build on top of, and the strong support framework of a full-size AAA studio to keep the production running smoothly, while allowing a small sub-team to follow its own creativity, making a new experience within the possibility space of the main game's premise. I feel highly privileged to have been involved in an enterprise like this in the capacity I was able, and I feel that by and large the results speak for themselves.
And that's just it. Maybe this entire blog has been one very long, indirect way of expressing a desire to make work that can speak for itself, finally rendering this little internet soapbox obsolete. Maybe that time has come.
Thank you all so much for reading this blog and contributing to my thinking on video games and game design. You've all made me more able to do the kind of work I've always wanted to do. For that I will be forever grateful.
Thanks for playing.
BioShock 2: Minerva's Den will be released for Xbox 360 and PS3 on August 31! 800 MS points, $9.99 on PSN. Below is a trailer we put together to herald the launch. I'm really happy with how it turned out, and I hope you'll find it intriguing as well.
That Minerva's Den poster at the end is the handiwork of the immensely talented Karla Zimonja, my assistant director on the project, and Devin St. Clair, our lead artist. It sure would make a nice desktop image, wouldn't it? Well, sure!
It's officially announced! The upcoming story DLC for BioShock 2 is called Minerva's Den-- a new part of Rapture with its own story, featuring a cast of new characters plus a few familiar faces.
I was writer and Lead Designer on the project (as well as designing the first level myself...) and while I can't say much more about it yet, I can say that I'm extremely proud of what our team accomplished. Lots of new stuff is packed in there for one DLC! New levels, new story, new weapon, new Plasmid, new enemy and bot variants, even a new type of Big Daddy!
It's funny: I guess this makes me some sort of specialist on expansion content. My first design job was on an expansion pack for FEAR, then I worked on a direct sequel, and now an expansion for that direct sequel. I look at it as a blessing, really: never underestimate the value of working on top of a stable base.
Anyway, I'm really excited for people to start exploring Minerva's Den. It's a little project, but one with a lot of heart, I feel. Look for more info soon.
I think it's fair to question the motives behind striving for "immersion," sensory or otherwise. "To be immersed" shouldn't be an end unto itself; it's a means to achieving some specific mix of sensation, but what?
I think that, at its essence, traditional, sensory immersion imparts a feeling of wonder: wonder at being in a wholly different place and experiencing a context outside our everyday, to feel new in some way. It rekindles that feeling of endless possibility that surrounded us in childhood, which I feel is a very good thing indeed.
Big, expensive, sensorily-complete video games have spent decades pushing towards the sense of truly "being there" in a simulated space. The player is drawn into the fictional world, and is given the chance to exist there for some time before returning to our own. It gives us new places to visit, places that have never existed and that never will.
These experiences are most often solitary, shutting out the rest of our world so that we can exist wholly in the other. Is this isolating? Lonely? Escapist? Maybe it is, if too are the experiences of immersing one's self in a novel for hours, or sitting silent and still in a darkened movie theatre, or listening through a new album end-to-end, headphones on and eyes shut.
There is of course more than one way to achieve this sense of wonder. A new paradigm is emerging, one more connected, more plugged-in, more integrated into our own daily experience than the old model of immersing the player in a constructed world. Augmented reality games, driven by the explosion of smartphone adoption, point to a future where video games provide the wonder of the new and unexpected in a different way: by weaving fictional elements into our own world, infusing our everyday surroundings with the fantastical, teaching us to see our familiar world with new eyes. Your house, apartment, street, the nearby woods, populated now with fictional characters, mind-bending anomalies, cryptic glyphs-- all supported by your social network of friends and fellow players, experiencing these things together as a living community. A brave new world.
The question, I think, is whether these two paradigms inherently conflict with one another-- if one is ever set to supercede the other, leaving it a relic. The old paradigm may only be "old" inasmuch as it is universal, timeless: beyond being formally similar to nearly every form of popular entertainment in human history-- from staring into the flames as a story is told around the campfire, to the Greek theatre, to the novel, film, radio, television-- it also shares the key quality of the most vital examples of all the above forms: the ability to transport us to an entirely other realm of experience.
That is the difference between the two paradigms of immersion: one, the traditional, transports the player to another world; the other, newer paradigm, transports elements of otherness into our own. And so, while potentially powerful, the new paradigm cannot provide us with incredible, imagined places to explore. The city of Rapture could never have existed as augmented reality; the new paradigm cannot take us to Wonderland, only put the White Rabbit in our backyard. While it might be less of-the-moment, the old paradigm feels somehow that much more integral to the human condition.
And so when I see the traditional notion of immersion drawn along generational lines-- associated with Generation X, as the new paradigm is to Generation Y-- I can't help but feel it's short-sighted (perhaps a more accurate comparison would be Generation Y versus every prior generation.) The implication that the desire to immerse oneself in a new and unknown world is unhealthy, immature, self-destructive or even suicidal, feels reactionary and narrow: one need not assume that the urge to visit another world emerges from a desire to obliterate our own world or ourselves, to run as a coward from our real-world problems, our stresses and worries and all the grown-up stuff we deal with; perhaps, instead, we are running from just those things of which the new paradigm is built: endless chatter, meaningless noise, bombardment by ads and IMs and text messages. As opposed to being self-destructive, the desire to shut off the outside world might be meditative-- a respite; a temporary communion with a pure experience (and, indirectly, with its creators.)
This ability to transport the player to impossible worlds is what I love about video games, and it's what great art and entertainment has been achieving for thousands of years. It's also why I don't worry too much about the rise of Facebook and iPhone games turning these sorts of experiences into dinosaurs, rendering them obsolete and then extinct. As a species, we will always want to visit new places, born out of the imaginations of our most creative minds; we will always want to be immersed in worlds other than our own. Despite hailing from Generation Y, you'll have to call me old-fashioned: long live the old paradigm.
How does one refer to this discussion? It's the one we have all the time, in the blogs and in the design pits-- the one about maturity, about meaning, gravity, the medium mattering. About how all we do is let players shoot each other in the face and how we could be so much more. The one about our potential and how we fall short and what we can do about it. The one about how we're a bunch of little boys who want to grow up but don't know how. That one.
It strikes me that we discuss these things in vague and airy terms, but we don't know what we're looking for. Maybe we know what we're not looking for-- "I want a game where you don't have to kill things all the time"-- or what accolades we desire-- "for games to be considered art"-- but we don't have the concrete, mid-scale examples of what trips us up, or exactly what we need to achieve. We're missing a measuring stick.
Hold that thought.
It bothers me that people demonize violence in video games as a concept. I understand that it's because violence is so wildly overused, and often so luridly fetishized, that the instinct of those of us immersed in the medium is to swing 180 degrees to the other side of the spectrum: no killing! no guns! no blood! But violence-- and I'm not trying to be apologist here-- is an integral element of drama through the ages. The question is in its application. Violence can and should be powerful; I argue that video games rob violence of its power by making it lightweight, pedestrian, throwaway, meaningless-- by making it de rigeur, the violence no longer matters: it is made mundane.
Again, put that one on the back burner.
The comics author Alison Bechdel focuses on feminist and queer issues in her work, and is perhaps most widely known outside of alt-comics fandom for establishing "The Bechdel Test" for film. The criteria are:
All together now:
Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death of Shakespeare's Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)
And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.
The metric becomes a constraint on content: don't remove the violence-- remove the faceless masses of "enemies." If every character the player interacts with is a unique and specific individual, then any act of violence committed by the player is invested with some amount of meaning: individuals have families, homes, jobs, friends, and most importantly, relationships with other characters in the game. The player's act spiders out from the individual to those that surround them, even if that social web is for the most part only implied. There are no more broad swaths of generic violence, then; there are only discrete acts of specific violence, each of which has the potential to matter.
The metric becomes a constraint on scale: if the player is able to commit violent acts, and they may only visit violence upon individuals, then every character the player meets must be unique, and therefore the approach to making the game-- the scale of environments, the construction of the cast, what the player does-- must be considered differently from the ground up. The end product cannot be the same.
At that point, maybe violence in games starts to mean differently.
Notes and examples:
* This obviously shares some overlap with Warren Spector's theoretical "one city block" game. If a game took place entirely within one city block, then clearly every person in the game would be an individual with a face and name, and any violent act performed would instantly reverberate through the entire block (or have to be very carefully concealed.) Maybe this is an idea whose time has finally come.
* One extant example that takes a somewhat more abstract form would be Shadow of the Colossus. While they aren't human, there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game (no filler fodder to wade through between Colossi) and each has its own unique appearance, environment, and behaviors. When you kill one, you have killed the only one of its kind, and the act carries with it a sense of sorrow and regret. The killing is a transaction between the player and another individual; and so, the violence has meaning.
* SPOILER: Consider BioShock. At the climax of the story, Andrew Ryan is killed by the player. This follows the deaths of hundreds of Splicers, deranged freaks that attack the player on sight and are eradicated en masse ("it's the same guy!") And yet, despite the numbing effect that this shredding of fodder should have on the player, Andrew Ryan's death still means. And it means not because of the fact of the parentage twist, but because Andrew Ryan has been built up over the course of the game as an individual, with an intellect and a history and a set of ideals. Such is the power of violence against the individual, that its ability to mean survives despite any devaluation of human life that precedes or follows it.
* Similarly, embracing fodder in film generally relegates the work to genre status, but not always: think kung fu films. Masses of foes fall to the heroes, and the works are considered niche and lightweight. Then along comes a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that wraps a compelling human melodrama around kung fu fighting at the height of its grace and theatricality, and it moves us as any great piece of human expression might. But it is the exception, not the rule. Alternately there is a whole genre of film-- the slasher film, like Friday the 13th or Saw-- that is composed of nothing but individual, named characters being killed, and these films are almost always dismissed as trash. The problem of course being that these individuals are introduced for no other purpose than to be killed in spectacular ways (and maybe to get naked.) Point being, removing fodder is no magic bullet.
* There are games now that are both character-based and have no generic fodder characters: games like The Sims, Animal Crossing, or most point-and-click adventure titles. Notably, they almost never feature any potential violent interaction at all (or if so, introduce more generic targets to the game for this express purpose: think of the bike duels in Full Throttle.) The mixing of the two seems to be largely taboo, possibly because it's really hard to support.
* A character doesn't have to be lavished with tons of backstory, a fully-fleshed-out family tree, or even a name to be a unique and specific individual: we might not know the name of the cop who's tortured and killed in Resevoir Dogs, or the men killed by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver, or the female Viet Cong killed at the end of Full Metal Jacket, but they are nonetheless individualized, and their deaths are meaningful in context. The specifics known about individuals are scalable, whereas fodder is only fodder.
Sorry the blog's been dark (again.) I'm consumed once more by getting something squared away at work. Hopefully sooner than later it'll be revealed publicly. Until then... maybe not a lot of blogging. Apologies, but with any luck, this will end up having been worth missing some blog posts for.