Thanks again to Simon Carless for posting a slightly-altered version of this article on GameSetWatch.

My blog's been getting pretty serious lately. I want to do some frivolity. So, considering the season, I present my list of "Best Games Set During Christmas." This isn't a numbered countdown or a definitive round-up but simply a little compilation of the best games I can think of that have Christmas settings.

Snatcher - Hideo Kojima's 16-bit adventure game was developed during that long gap between Metal Gear 2 and Solid, and released in the west on Sega CD. Its gameplay is staunchly point-and-click in the Sierra or Lucasarts tradition, with a little bit of Hogan's Alley thrown in every once in a while. The game is a transparent "homage" to Blade Runner, mixed with some Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a cornball anime veneer to top it all off. It takes place in Neo Kobe after a catastrophic man-made disaster wiped out much of the world's population. Expats trapped in Japan turned Neo Kobe into a strange dystopian melting pot, and it's here that one Gillian Seed, blade runner junker agent extraordinaire and classic amnesiac video game protagonist carries out his mission of hunting down replicants bioroids that have gone rogue. It's also set during Christmas time, featuring decorations and holiday ads throughout the city, as well as Gillian's informant, Napoleon, who dresses up as a shopping mall Santa to hide in plain sight.

Skip to 6:15 for hot Santa informant action:

Bully - Rockstar's reform school saga depicts a year in the life of Jimmy Hopkins, a wayward kid trying to thrive in the dog-eat-dog social maze of Bullworth Academy. The game takes place during fall, winter, spring, and an "endless summer," beautifully realizing each season in turn. On Christmas day, Jimmy is called to the principal's office to receive a gift that his mother has sent him: a hilariously goofy reindeer sweater, which he's compelled to wear back to the dorms, being laughed at and scorned by his classmates the entire way. Really funny stuff.

Boogie Wings/The Great Ragtime Show - Data East released one crazy side-scrolling shooter back in '92, which tried all sorts of wild mechanics and paired them with a bizarre ragtime theme. In the game, the player pilots a Red Baron-esque biplane and flies left-to-right blowing up soldiers, tanks, cowboys, mobsters, and anything else unlucky enough to get in his way.

A couple things make the game unique: one is the free-swinging tow line that hangs from the plane, which the player can use to hook enemies and objects in the world, and fling them about at will. You can pick up tanks or bombs, then whirl the plane around in a circle to whip them at the opposition, causing a huge chain reaction of destruction. Or, you can sadistically pick up a poor unlucky soldier and send him sailing through the air for your own amusement. Another interesting aspect is that the player can hop out of the plane and run along the ground, or jump into jeeps, tanks, and other vehicles for a change of pace.

The game lets the player choose from five different themed levels, one of which is titled "Merry Merry Christmas." In it, the player flies through a city fully decked out for the holidays, shooting up Christmas trees, snowmen, and tossing mall Santas about with his tow line hook. At the end of the level, the player fights an enormous mechanical Santa who tosses crates at you from his sack of presents, and trades his Salvation Army hand bell for a flintlock pistol, all the while shouting out "MERRY CHRISTMAS," as if to taunt you. Either that or he's just having a really good time. Check out the video below for a midi-styled ragtime interpretation of "Joy to the World."

Hitman Blood Money - I'm a huge fan of the Hitman games, especially Blood Money, which took the series formula and executed it to absolute perfection. In one level, Agent 47 is sent to assassinate a wealthy pornography mogul and his playboy of a son, who have become political liabilities to a certain individual who has called upon your services. To do so, 47 drops in on the pornographer's "Christmas in July" celebration at his snowy cliffside abode in the mountains of Colorado, complete with a festive tree, Christmas lights, presents, and red latex outfits for the ladies in attendance. So, stalk the drunken Santa Claus into a nice secluded alcove, dispose of him quietly, steal his clothes, and enjoy our favorite chrome-domed assassin decked out as old Saint Nick. If there's one thing the Hitman series has always had, it's a strong undercurrent of dark humor.

Animal Crossing - Another game that takes place during every season, the month of December is especially cheery in the little town that lives inside your GameCube (or now, Wii.) Animals will graciously trade Christmas presents with the player, Nookington's features Christmas trees (and menorahs) all month long, snowmen start to pop up (and talk!), and blinking, festive lights cover all the trees in town. On Christmas eve, Jingle the red-suited reindeer will reward you with holiday-themed furniture if you can track him down as he makes his rounds.

Raw Danger! - I was recently turned on to Raw Danger! by the GameSetWatch rundown of "2007's Top 5 Overlooked Games." I picked it up, I've been playing it, and I love it. It's got no production values: it looks almost like a PS1 game, the translation is bad, and the voicework is even worse. But the actual design of the game-- the things you can do and the way you do them-- is outstandingly unique, fascinating and fun. It's an action adventure game that aims to provide tension, excitement, and a sense of "raw danger" without any sort of combat or hostile creatures whatsoever. The game's central dilemma is one of the rarest in games, Man versus Nature, and the designers find ways to engage the player simply through direct conflict with the environment itself, as you try to survive in a world that's crumbling around you.

The depth of character management is impressive: you gather items, juggle an inventory and equip new clothes and accessories to stave off hypothermia during the game's ongoing torrential flood, as well as pushing your relationship with various side characters this way and that via a wide range of dialogue options. The game even manages to be player-friendly and opposes the frustration factor by invisibly placing checkpoints before any spot where you're likely to be killed by some sort of sudden collapse or perilous situation.

The game is notable for being an extremely lo-fi production that commits itself to trying something out of the ordinary by engaging the player with other than shooting or swordplay, or even acrobatics and colorful platforming. The game's excitement and tension come from navigating a world that could come tumbling down at any minute, and figuring out how exactly you're going to get yourself out of the seemingly hopeless situation brought on by the disaster at hand. The narrative, though clumsily told, is intriguing for its structure: you play as up to six different characters in turn over the course of the game, and your actions as one character might impact, or even doom, another playable character down the line. To meet up with a female convict in the first character's story, then play that encounter from the convict's point of view during the second scenario is just super cool, and makes you reflect on your decision-making throughout the game, knowing it may come back to you in the end.

Anyway! The game is set during three long, arduous days, starting on Christmas eve 2010. The season comes into play as your first character is a waiter at a Christmas gala unveiling the new superdense underground metropolis, "Geo City." Vestiges of the season can help or hinder your progress, as at one point the player shimmies along a string of Christmas lights hanging above a raging torrent, and at another point an enormous shopping center Christmas tree can topple over and crush you if you're not careful. See the trailer below for hilarious comic timing, set off by the initial strings of "Jingle Bells."

So, if you need help getting in the spirit, try out something from this list! Now would be a particularly good time to start up a town in Animal Crossing, or to support the team at Irem who went out on a limb to bring us Raw Danger! Happy holidays!




As a companion piece to my post "Dead Men" below, my friend Chris published a different article of mine singing the praises of Kane & Lynch over on the Shacknews blog. My post "Noir"was also graciously linked by Simon Carless on Gamasutra's blog, GameSetWatch. I'd like to extend my gratitude to them both for spreading my words around.

I think that my heavy evangelism of Kane & Lynch, along with my posting of "Dead Men" immediately after "Noir," and finally relating that game to the "noir mindset," may have given off a bit of a false impression, though. While I do think that K&L is admirable for affecting some of noir's most compelling narrative approaches, it's not "THE GAME" that epitomizes that theoretical overall production I outlined in "Noir." "Noir" described a game that, to my knowledge, does not exactly exist at present. There are a few reasons that Kane & Lynch isn't that game.

1) Scale of production: Kane & Lynch is a full-scale commercial production that aims for "triple A" status. It includes a full singleplayer/co-op campaign as well as a separate, full-featured competitive multiplayer game mode. It uses a graphics engine that has been updated to current-gen standards which, while not on par with the cutting edge of Unreal 3 tech, attempts to wield all the visual bells and whistles of its contemporaries. It was released across three current-gen platforms, and boasted a fairly massive intercontinental advertising campaign. Perhaps to its detriment, Kane & Lynch was a "big game" in every applicable respect. Conversely, a noir game will fully embrace a narrower production scope, intentionally modest level of graphical fidelity, and low-intensity approach to marketing/distribution.

2) Scale of Conflict: While the personal conflicts that drive Kane's character arc are compelling, and the narrative itself largely maintains a direct, visceral and human scale, the physical conflict acted out by the player is a different thing entirely, maintaining the status quo of mowing down hundreds of faceless enemies over the course of a video game. The noir approach does not embrace the flood of cannon fodder common to contemporary action titles, but instead promises an experience buoyed by its characters' internal conflicts, and only punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence that are meaningful to the player's understanding of the gameworld. Noir and Rambo do not mix; the handful of deaths in Kane & Lynch that do truly matter are diluted by the dozens upon dozens in between that are completely meaningless. Interestingly enough, the one of the only action games that makes a genuinely compelling experience out of killing as few people as possible also comes from Io Interactive: the Hitman series.

So, I'll apologize if my message with "Noir" and "Dead Men" seemed to be, "here is a description of the noir approach, and here is a perfect example of that approach made reality." Not quite: as a story and character study, Kane & Lynch is as successful an attempt as almost any action game you might compare it to, and owes much to the noir mindset; as a game however, while executed well for what it is, doesn't attempt to alter the paradigm of the traditional big budget, wide-release, AAA shooter production.

But halfway there is a good start.



Dead Men

Thanks to Chris at Shacknews for publishing a sister piece to this article.

There are already games that pull from noir in story, characterization and tone. One was released just weeks ago, and I'd go so far as to say that it constitutes a "modern noir," in the same way you might classify Chinatown, Blade Runner, LA Confidential or Brick as such. It's a crime tale, a story of one man's futile attempts to atone for his past and reconnect with his family, and a modest production that doesn't overstay its welcome or try to out-epic Epic. It's Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, an unpolished gem to be sure, and one that hasn't connected with the popular reviewership. It's extraordinary for reasons that don't necessarily equate to a high numerical score, but it deserves better than this.

Kane & Lynch eschews what usually appeals to the public's adolescent "cool" factor: the protagonists aren't the usual posable action figures with huge muscles, bulky body armor, or the latest high-tech equipment. They're two grisled, middle-aged men, over the hill for mercenary work, both balding, world-weary, clad in muted suit and tie. The story takes place in alleys, diners, and city streets; in metropolitan banks, prison blocks, dance clubs and corporate towers; finally, in the Cuban capitol under siege and a mercenary camp in the jungles of South America. The guns are simple pistols, rifles, and shotguns that might be found in a pawn shop or at a common shooting range. The game focuses on the criminal underworld, and what happens when these elements show themselves on the surface of society. There is simply nothing fantastical about it--think of how rare that is in action games today--and the effect is all the more powerful for it.

The following section discusses the game in a way that includes full plot spoilers.
(Scroll down to the next bolded marker to skip spoiler section.)

The flawed protagonist, mundane settings, and tragic arc of the story are what make it a modern noir. The game casts the player as Adam Marcus AKA "Kane," an old-school mercenary criminal who, as the story begins, has fucked up for what he thinks is his last time. His most recent job with his long-time criminal syndicate, "The 7," went wrong, leaving 25 civilians and (he thought) the rest of The 7 dead, with only Kane left to take the blame. He took the money and ran, leaving it with a business associate before being picked up by the police. Now he's on his way to the gas chamber. In the prison transport van, Kane carries with him a letter he's written to his estranged daughter Jenny. He abandoned Jenny and her mother 14 years earlier to pursue (protect them from?) his life of crime, and his letter expresses all the regret he's bottled in since then.

But halfway to death row he's busted out by agents of The 7, who it turns out didn't die in Venezuela after all, and are a little irked that Kane ran off with the loot from the failed heist before being apprehended. So, they've kidnapped that estranged family of his and give him three days to bring back their score. They call him a traitor, saying he double-crossed them to run with the cash; if he doesn't bring them what they want before time runs out, his family is going to die. In Kane's tow they send along Lynch, a fellow death row inmate they've hired to keep an eye on Kane during the job, while The 7 stays safely in hiding.

The rest of the story portrays one man's attempts to right all his past wrongs, a road paved with good intentions but ending up in hell despite it all. Kane is trying to "fix everything": to prove he's not a traitor as The 7 say, and to fish his family back out of the fire; most of all, to express to his daughter Jenny all the regret he's felt over abandoning her so long ago. Each mission in the game illustrates another attempt at redemption being stopped in its tracks for one reason or another. Kane tries to simply retrieve The 7's loot like they ask, but finds that it's been swiped before he could get to it; he tries to bargain with the mysterious figure who's stolen the loot by (ironically enough) kidnapping that man's daughter, only to have the extremely unstable Lynch kill the hostage at the last moment, completely screwing the pooch. When Kane misses the deadline and The 7 goes through with their threats to execute him and his family, he manages to free himself and Jenny, but not before The 7 kill his wife right in front of his daughter's eyes. Jenny escapes, only to later be tracked down and apprehended by The 7, held hostage to keep Kane under their thumb.
The game takes a turn toward revenge tale as Kane chases the rest of The 7 all over the globe, now out for payback against each one of them, and moreover to free his daughter from their grasp once and for all. To aid in his search, Kane busts his old crew of underworld buddies out of maximum security prison, promising them a new lease on life and a cut of the action if they help him out. Though he does manage to exact revenge on one member of The 7 after another and to finally secure Jenny in a daring airstrip raid, most of his old crewmembers also fall to gunfire one by one along the way, leaving the player to wonder whether they wouldn't have been better off back in prison.

The climactic scene of the game finds Kane at a crossroads: he has Jenny as well as a chopper to escape with, but the remaining members of his crew are holed up under heavy enemy fire in a nearby church. Does he take Jenny and run, leaving his men to die and proving himself to be the traitor they've all accused him of being, or does he do the honorable thing and risk Jenny's life to save the men that are counting on him?

The player gets to choose, and there's no making it out clean regardless: if you grab the chopper and run, you've damned Kane to live up to the expectations of all those around him, to prove himself a man without honor. Kane's saved his daughter's life but done nothing to win her heart. It's an empty victory.

If the player chooses the other path, and attempts to prove that Kane isn't a traitor, all of his men die in the ensuing firefight regardless of his best efforts. Likewise, Jenny catches a stray bullet, and must finally be carried to the small escape boat that Kane and Lynch commandeer at the far end of a lonely dock. In the final cinematic, Jenny succumbs to her wounds as she lies in Kane's arms. He reads her that letter he was writing at the outset, the one that explains all his regrets, the one he never got to send. She doesn't hear a word of it. The boat drifts out to sea.

Spoilers end here.

This isn't a video game story, and these aren't video game characters! This is The Asphalt Jungle, or The Killing. Kane is the flawed and disaffected Sterling Hayden character, the weathered underworld soldier bringing his old crew back into the fold to pull off that one last retirement job. He's dragged down by his own shortcomings, and brings everyone around him down with him. The end of the story isn't triumphant or life-affirming: it's the protagonist face-down in the dirt of his family's old horse farm; it's the cash fluttering away on the tarmac and the police detectives closing in. It's a pathetic skiff crewed by two defeated old men floating off into the sea, instead of a space marine in green armor saving the universe. It's a game that explores a group of completely damaged individuals, and doesn't cop out on giving them what they deserve so the player can feel good about himself. It's unflinching and morally bankrupt. It's noir.

The game hasn't fared well with the critics, which I mainly attribute to a significant lack of polish present in the title overall. From playing it, Kane & Lynch is clearly a game that should have shipped four or six months later than it did, but was rushed out for the Christmas buying frenzy. Notable is that almost all of the reviews, even ones attributed to "Kane & Lynch PC," seem to come from Xbox playthroughs of the game. The movement, aiming and shooting mechanics are perfectly suited to the mouse and keyboard, but don't seem to have been retooled appropriately for a console controller. On a gamepad, the default aiming sensitivity is useless, and even after tweaking the settings, the aiming just doesn't work well on the consoles: the kickback of the guns is too extreme to deal with using an analog stick, and the levels aren't designed to accommodate the slower target acquisition and lack of accuracy with a controller as opposed to a mouse & keyboard setup. On top of that, across both platforms aspects of the presentation, especially scripted and prerendered cinematics, are rough at best; sadly, the endgame cinematics, while holding the most emotional weight, were given hardly any attention in execution, and come off flat despite their intended message being powerful.

In all, if you play Kane & Lynch on PC, it's an outstanding third-person squad shooter that I wholeheartedly recommend: using the simple cover system, squad commands, and visceral firearms to methodically cut a swath through your opposition is extremely satisfying, while the intense and affecting story keeps you riveted from moment to moment. That said, it's only the core experience that's so excellent-- a lack of time to apply all the necessary surface polish is readily apparent, and there are certain combat encounters that seem unbalanced compared to the rest of the game. And unless you're supremely patient, or supremely skilled at console shooters, skip the Xbox version.

In my opinion, the PC version's positives completely outweigh the negatives, and it's one of the worthiest PC shooter purchases of the last year. But what really sets the game apart is its commitment to deliver a story that we don't get anywhere else in games, to devote itself to the noir mindset, no compromises, and show us one way that games can communicate something that's not juvenile, trite, or outright embarassing like most game narratives. If the development team had been allowed enough time to polish the game to the level it really deserved--and Hitman Blood Money showed that Io is capable of that level of polish--this unique experience could have reached more people. What could have been.

Maybe Kane & Lynch is the kind of game story that never could have connected with the mass audience. But the beauty of games is that subversive property, the ability to distract the player with such an entertaining pure gameplay experience that they'll accept whatever narrative messages you want to send them. If the game's mechanics and dynamics had been properly tuned and balanced for consoles, Gerstmann might have relegated his incessant harping on the "impossible to care about" characters to a minor quibble, and given it a score that didn't relegate the game (or his career, natch,) to bargain bin status. In its current state, if you like PC shooters, yearn for video games that say something different, and love underworld noirs like Kiss Me Deadly, The Killing, or The Asphalt Jungle, you owe it to yourself to give Kane & Lynch a little of your time. For the people it manages to touch, it won't be easily forgotten.




Thanks to Simon Carless for graciously posting about "Noir" on GameSetWatch, and re-publishing the essay as an article on Gamasutra.com

In the late 30's through the 50's, American film was a spectacle-based business. The market was dominated by the studio system, and blockbuster epics and musicals ruled the public consciousness. The stars, budgets, and sets were enormous. It didn't take long for the entire enterprise to become very bloated. Eventually, pricetags began outstripping profits in an arms race to sensory overload. It was during this era that film noir was born.

Film noir was a pragmatic school of filmmaking, rebelling against popular big-budget fluff out of pure necessity. These were B-films, low investment projects quick to produce and intended simply to fill out an evening's double bill. Under the constraints of little money or time to build unique sets to shoot on, or to stage scenes featuring armies of extras, or to exploit complex lighting, camera setups, or special effects, noir filmmakers had to seek out new ways to build tension onscreen and keep their audience engaged. They did so by focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world. They drew from pulp novels and crime fiction for their source material, and benefited immeasurably from the influx of expatriate German Expressionist filmmakers fleeing the Nazi expansion throughout Europe at the time. Instead of building a fantastical set, film noir would film in vérité city streets and back alleys. Instead of dousing dozens of dancers with massive lighting rigs and filming them with a drove of whirling camera cranes, noir filmmakers would frame individuals frankly in dramatic up-shot, a single spotlight casting ominous silhouettes across the ceiling.

Film noirs like Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Combo made a new kind of entertainment out of the very limitations that constrained them, and went on to influence everything from the writers of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave of the 60's, to the Coen brothers' films of today. Necessity being the mother of invention, film noir created something unique and affecting, something that has lived on, out of the need to engage people without relying on the spectacle of the day's million-dollar blockbusters.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this.

We are currently a hit-driven industry, and the games that get media and player attention are those with the most money behind them to provide the biggest spectacle. In the commercial sector, everyone is vying with the likes of Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Halo 3 for mindspace; if you want to be taken seriously by "the gamer public," you have to hit not just the game design mark, but the whizz-bang cutting-edge graphical mark as well. You have to bring millions of dollars to the table just to qualify, which leads to extreme risk aversion by publishers and developers, and a tendency over time to lose players who are tired of the same old thing dressed up in more and more expensive clothes. When your game is backed by tens of millions of dollars, you can't use it as a testing ground for wild new mechanics and dynamics never tried before; however, when you're building a low-budget 2D platformer, even your successful experiments won't make an impact on the medium at large, the "big games" that get everyone talking. What we've got left is a huge gulf between popular, full-experience 3D action/adventure games that need to be financial blockbusters to survive, and marginalized casual/handheld/movie licensed games that don't register on the mass consciousness radar. We need our B films. We need that freedom to explore truly meaningful new avenues of interaction, quickly and nimbly, without the pressure of an eight-figure budget and multi-year dev schedule weighing down on the whole enterprise. Noir already scouted this territory for us.

Noir begs game developers to reign in the scope of their production budgets, and the conflicts they depict. The noir approach promises games wherein the player isn't saving the kingdom, world or galaxy; wherein the ubermensch doesn't mow down a thousand men; wherein we can experience familiar settings in a new way, and infuse the everyday with the extraordinary. The noir approach promises games that are direct, visceral, and intentionally oppose epicness-- games that deliver their entire message with immediacy, before you lose sight of how the story of their interactions began.

Games that take film noir as a cue shouldn't emulate the surface-- trench coats, cigarettes, femme fatales and old LA. Games should emulate the structural and emotional underpinnings that made noir work as an experience. We can do this with readily-available, inexpensive tech; we can leverage older 3D engines and simpler lighting & shader models in the same way noir filmmakers used location shooting and expressionistic cinematography. We already have our Gone with the Winds and Wizards of Oz, and a dozen Busby Berkley spectaculars to fill in the gaps; we need our Asphalt Jungles, our Kiss Me Deadlies, our Gun Crazies and Double Indemnities and Out of the Pasts. We've proven we can do big. Noir shows us how to take the small road, explore its every twist and turn, and connect with our audience in new ways.




I read a quote last night in The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata:

"What good is a soldier who doesn't want a medal?"




A straightforward post today: the games I play are just too long.

I'm currently playing The Witcher, which is a pretty great game-- a solid PC RPG with a unique tone-- but I've probably put 15 or 20 hours into it, and I find myself wishing it were over. Not because I'm not enjoying it, but because I feel like I "get it"-- I've seen what the game has to offer, I've played through the available breadth of interactions, and now I'm simply repeating the established inputs in slightly different contexts. Maybe I'm casting a more powerful spell at a new enemy, but it's only a surface difference from the same dynamic found in the first hour of the game; maybe I'm navigating a new dialogue tree with a new character, but only the words are different while the interaction is the same. The prologue and first chapter of The Witcher were so fresh, fun, engaging, and perfectly cohesive as a unit, that I wish the first six hours had been the entire game, and left it at that. At the rate I'm going, I don't know if I'll see the ending at all.

I have a novelty-seeking personality, and always want to consume as many different films as I can, play through as many different games as possible, listen to a new album, fully digest it, then move on to the next. I'm not an MMO devotee, and I don't usually replay games I've already completed. But even finishing single-player games in the first place isn't all that common, and I know I'm not alone. From what I've been told, according to market research, fewer than half the players of any given commercial game make it past the 50% point of the campaign, and the dropoff increases rapidly the further you go. So, fewer than 50% of players make it past the second island of GTA3, or past the Berserker in Gears of War, or past the castle in Resident Evil 4. And forget about actually seeing the end credits. So I ask you: if only half your players even make it halfway through your games, why aren't we making games that are half as long?

I think Portal demonstrates how much greater a game can be for matching its length to its content. Portal hit that perfect mark at which the player had learned all the available inputs and play techniques, been given just enough to master them all, and experienced a complete narrative arc by the moment the end credits roll. Portal was 4 hours long because it only needed to be 4 hours long, no more, and probably no less.

In the same way, how long does it take the player to fully absorb all the mechanics and artifice of, say, F.E.A.R.? After a few hours, you've got a handle on all the movement controls, the battle tactics, the slow-mo effects; you've become familiar with Alma, the replica soldiers, and the general tone and rhythm of the game. At what point do you transition from exploring a new set of experiences, to rotely going through the motions just to reach the ending? I believe that in most games the transition point comes well before the conclusion of the included content, and it's at this moment most people put down a game for good, forgoing half the game they paid for; I believe the research bears this out.

I want all games to be as tight and compact as Portal-- greater length should be reserved for games of greater depth. I want to absorb the atmosphere and full range of interaction a game has to offer, then reach a resolution before it all becomes stale. I don't like that my arc of interest in Rogue Galaxy, Rainbow 6 Vegas, Halo 3 and Persona 3 ended long before I completed their campaigns. I want to finish these things without having to trudge-- I want the six-hour game that I can enjoy and complete and make a clean break from instead of just giving up. A six-hour game is reasonable; I can burn through a six-hour game in a night if I'm really dedicated, or play an hour a night and actually finish it in a week instead of a month. I want an hour or two to get acquainted with the world, a couple more hours to master the techniques embedded in the game dynamics, and then a final hour or two to really revel in the depth of the systems and finally resolve all the narrative elements. I want this to be true of all the games I play: action, adventure, and RPG. Stop making me force myself to finish your games.

I want to see a structure like this: develop your core gameplay, refine all the systems, then create a full, cohesive, well-paced 6-hour campaign that expresses it all in a compact fashion, a campaign that can stand on its own, that follows a complete narrative arc and provides me a satisfying resolution. Put an entire game into the first island of GTA3, or the prologue and first chapter of The Witcher, or the first act of Half-Life 2, and release it at retail as the "base game." Let me take away that single experience if that's all I want. Then, release the remainder of the campaign in chunks-- "Extensions" if you will-- that add further hours of content onto the base experience. If I'm satisfied with just the base game, I've given you my money and don't feel cheated out of an ending; then, if I just can't live without more content, I'm free to extend the game by buying more chunks of content from you and adding it onto the end of the base campaign. Do I want the game to be six hours, or 16, or 26? That all depends on my level of engagement with the world you've created. But regardless of what it is, I don't want to feel like I've missed out on a resolution to the game's conundrums just because I didn't have the level of commitment required to slog through a dozen hours of filler. The GTA structure would be perfect for this kind of release-- the base game is the entire city with just the core story missions woven through it; further Extensions weave more missions and characters into the existing gameworld, or provide access to a new island. It's a gameworld that expands outward at the player's will.

Think of it: how often do you walk out on a film halfway through? I'd wager not as often as you buy or rent a game without ever finishing it. How is it not a red flag to the industry that the player rarely sees the ending of the game you've made for them? We need to open our eyes. Give me base games that I can finish comfortably, or extend if I so choose. Leave me wanting more, instead of feeling relieved when it's finally over.




It's official: my first title as professional level designer has reached retail store shelves.

It was cool seeing the preorder signs and boxes in EB last week, and I'll pop in next time I'm near one to see the genuine article in person, shake the box around, hear the discs rattle. It's a modest accomplishment-- Perseus Mandate/F.E.A.R. Files isn't a release with anywhere near the profile of Call of Duty 4 or Gears of War-- but in the two years since I started this blog, I have gone from temp-hire game tester to full-time level designer with a shipped title under his belt. I'm proud to be able to say that. It's what I set out to do, and I hope that this will be the first of many titles with my name in the credits.

The low profile of the title means it hasn't received many reviews of yet; other factors have kept the reviewers from being too kind. Perseus Mandate is taking a bit of a beating, while F.E.A.R Files is doing a little better, no doubt bolstered by the added value of Extraction Point being included in the box. Innumerable factors result in the final state of a game at release, much less the review scores of that game, but I stand by my work on the title, and am proud to have been a part of something that I hope will bring some players a good deal of enjoyment during their time with it. As a fledgling designer, one who is only a single member of the design team and who was brought onboard less than 6 months before we went gold, I can only take some small amount of credit for our successes with the game, and a small amount of responsibility for our failings. I also hope that as more reviews trickle in, those Metacritic averages might creep upwards a bit.

We're digging in our heels and revving up pre-production for our next big, unannounced title. Here's hoping that with more resources of all kinds at our disposal, we'll be able to use the lessons learned from Perseus Mandate and deliver something truly outstanding!

In the meantime, if you do pick up Perseus Mandate or F.E.A.R. Files, pop open Instant Action: Sprint or Instant Action: Arena to play the two levels which are entirely my own, from concept to final polish. I am also largely responsible for Instant Action: Clinic, though I built it up from a base created by fellow level designer/former QA tester Ian Shepherd. My hand is visible throughout the campaign as well, though none of the level layouts or meta-elements are mine; only finishing and polishing. I'll have images and video of the material I'm directly responsible for sometime in the near future, for the curious.





The annual Dia de los Muertos processional was held last Friday in the Mission district of San Francisco. From the site:

The Day of the Dead is a unique festival that is the result of 16th century contact between Mesoamerica and Europe. Conceptually, it is a hybrid, owing its origins to both prehispanic Aztec philosophy and religion and medieval European ritual practice. Ceremonies held during the Aztec summer month of Miccailhuitontli were mainly focused on the celebration of the dead. These were held under the supernatural direction of the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Both children and dead ancestors were remembered and celebrated. It was also during this month that the Aztecs commemorated fallen warriors. According to Diego Duran, a 16th century Spanish priest, the Aztecs would bring offerings of food to altars in honor of the dead. They would also place small clay images that were supposed to represent the deceased on these same altars.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they brought the Christian Holiday of All Soul's Day with them. This was a Roman Catholic holy day commemorating the dead in general as well as baptized Christians who were believed to be in purgatory. Spanish priests were quick to see a correlation between the Aztec and Christian celebrations so moved the Aztec festival from summer to fall so that it coincided with All Soul's day. This was done in the hopes that the Aztec holiday, which the Spaniards considered to be pagan, would be transformed into an acceptable Christian holiday.

The result of this cultural blending is an event where modern Mexicanos celebrate their ancestors during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer. While this modern festival has Christian components, it still maintains its indigenous Native American ones.

Yearly, people from all around the city gather in the Mission and parade down the street, playing music, carrying altars, dressing in Mexican Gothic costume, and painting their faces with skull masks. There were a number of different marching groups anchoring the parade: the first a high-energy drum and horn brigade, a central group playing an eerie dirge on gongs and cymbals, and finally a white-clad dance and music troupe from a local arts elementary school. Rachel and I attended as uncostumed onlookers. We walked up and down the length of the parade, and I took pictures. At the end, we went for food at El Farolito on 24th at Mission. As we left the taqueria, there was a Michael Jackson's Thriller-themed dance party going on in the square at the BART stop.

I love being back in the city. Attending these sorts of community events is like nothing else.

I only thought of Grim Fandango a couple times, honest :-)




I was briefly very curious about GUN, the Neversoft game.

The original announcement of the game only revealed the title and an ominous tagline on a black background: "Pull the Trigger. GUN." And, to someone immersed in the video game dialogue, how provocative is that?

Popular games, following the sea change caused by Wolfenstein and Doom, have been about the power and allure of the firearm. Firing guns at living targets encapsulates the two biggest psychological draws of video games: being able to do something you otherwise can't in the real world, and a sense of power and control over a chaotic situation. I expect most people who play shooter games haven't actually fired a gun in the real world, much less killed, or even badly injured, another person. It's unthinkable on some level, but on the other hand it has the appeal of the taboo-- I can't actually shoot someone... but what is it like? It's an experience that is familiar to the audience via film and television, but even then still only secondhand; games deliver the visceral sensation of actually doing. Games play out the audience's illicit love affair with the firearm. And not just America's, but Japan's and Europe's. A fascination with instant death.

I've fired real guns. Admittedly, my motivation was game-related-- I'd virtually shot so many guns in my life that I felt a need to have the real-world experience to back it up. After a trial shot or two, I was actually rather good; games had taught me to line up the sights and adjust for recoil. I've only gone shooting once, in a quarry with some friends and some beer cans. And midway through our session there, I pictured actually having another person in front of the gun when I pulled the trigger. And it's just terrifying to even imagine, once you know what the shooting itself is actually like. Once you've gained first-hand knowledge of how it feels to fire a real gun, it's easy to construct the rest of the scene.

It's horrific. It's not like in a video game where a blood decal appears on the bad guy's shirt and he peacefully ragdolls into a floppy pile. In games, if anything, shooting someone is simply about neutralizing them, not actually hurting them; enemies shot non-fatally don't express pain, and fatal wounds silence the target instantaneously. It's the sterilized version of the act. The ideal killing. And it happens a hundred times more in any given shooter game than in all the action movies of a year combined. Never has so little screentime been devoted to so much gun violence.

So the teaser for GUN held an enormous amount of promise. The title alone--GUN-- begs a game about the gun itself: about our relationship to it as entertainment consumers and game players; about the presence of the firearm in our society, about the implications and effects of gun violence, the power of the gun itself and the lives it affects. A deconstruction, an analysis, maybe even a meditation. A game that acknowledges all the things that shooters normally take for granted, and asks the player to consider them anew, through their own actions and decisions.

Then the tagline-- "Pull the Trigger"-- adds another layer of reflexivity to the prospect. In most shooter games, pulling the trigger is a foregone conclusion. The game begins with a gun in your hands, and never asks if you're going to fire it, but where and how often. Could GUN be a game wherein the gun itself is an element of the world that isn't grafted to the player's hand? Where the decision to even pick up a gun, much less fire it, is an actual decision, with gravity and import? In the vast majority of films, aside from such as Predator and Rambo 2, the simple act of picking up a gun is meaningful, foreboding, and dangerous. The entire dynamic of the film changes at that moment. This character might kill another person now. And an actual shooting-- again, in a film with humanity-- has impact and sobriety to it.

Consider the following scene from Taxi Driver: the climactic gun battle in the flophouse, immediately before the ending of the film.

In some ways, the setup is much like that of an urban shooter game: the heavily-armed lone hero storms a nest of criminal activity and cleanses it through the barrel of a gun. But unlike in a game, it's not "cool" or clean or fun. It's harrowing and bleak, filthy and gory and frightening. Only three people are killed, but the scene has more impact than all the combined hours of gun violence I've played out in video games this year. Why is that? Why do games only glorify the gun, without addressing the ugliness and the aftermath, or the compulsion to kill? Could this mysterious "GUN" game actually question our assumptions about the gun's role in the modern video game?

No, as it turned out, GUN was just a cheap GTA-alike set in the old west. It could hardly be less high-minded if it tried. Neversoft continued its financial success by carrying the torch of the Tony Hawk and now Guitar Hero series, and GUN faded into obscurity.

Hopefully, somewhere, the spirit of the game that GUN could have been is still alive, waiting. It's just too bad that the perfect title is already taken.

*note: images used are from Larry Clark's photo series Tulsa.




I've heard variations on the sentiment: "The least valuable commodity in the games industry is ideas," "ideas are a dime a dozen," or "ideas are like assholes..." But I think this is a fallacy. People who believe the above are thinking of video game ideas wrongly. The kind of ideas that have no worth, and maybe the kind most common, start out such as: "You're a space marine, and an evil galactic corporation has taken control of your homeworld..." or "I've got a great idea for this game that's like GTA, but in feudal Japan..." They're narrative or setting ideas, vague framing concepts for the artifice that props up a game. But they're not ideas for a game. When we look at the popular landscape of video games, we see derivative mechanics and stale dynamics. We don't see new ideas for what a game can be or how a familiar genre can be approached in a unique way, and when we do see a spark of something new that works, it gets copied and rehashed by half a dozen minor studios without ideas of their own. So I disagree with the aforementioned "truisms." I think one of the most valuable commodities in the games industry today is truly unique and feasible ideas for new gameplay mechanics.

The example here is the newly released Portal. It's a compact "big game" the history of which is fairly well-known now: Narbacular Drop was the senior project of a group of students at Digipen video game college. It was a first-person perspective game wherein the player was required to solve puzzle rooms by placing and rearranging pairs of interconnected portals on surfaces at their choosing, allowing them to pass otherwise insurmountable obstacles. Valve saw the team's work and brought them on internally to continue developing their game concept into a full product. What we come away with is an extremely polished, cohesive, and advanced version of Narbacular Drop, in the form of Portal. And I'm confident in saying that the three or four hours I spent completing Portal (and two or so more playing it again with Developer Commentary turned on) were some of the very best hours of gaming I've ever experienced.

The point is this: the Narbacular Drop team was adopted into Valve because of the idea they came up with, not for a setting or story (which were ditched from the original version) but for a truly new mechanical concept, one which they were able to demonstrate was novel, feasible, and led to a wide range of engaging gameplay dynamics, and was therefore worth building a big game around. The key to this entire saga was the idea itself behind the point-to-point portal mechanic, and its application to a familiar framework, the first-person perspective action game. Embracing and investing in these kinds of ideas is the only way that big games will be able to overcome the widespread rut of killing a thousand grunts in slightly different ways. And as Portal proves, when an experienced, skilled and dedicated crew of developers pushes a novel gameplay concept to its fullest potential, the results can be absolutely astonishing-- a big game literally unlike we've ever played before.

I think I'm in love with Portal a little bit. It shows how things can be done right.




The playable demo for F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate, a standalone expansion by TimeGate studios, has been released!

I was responsible for creating this demo, but most of the content isn't mine. I grabbed large sections from one level created by Shane Paluski and another by James Kneuper, a nightmare sequence from one of Sam Villareal's levels, stitched them all together, cleaned up some elements, added more of my own (including the final room,) did a bunch of bugfixing, and voila, there we have it: one playable demo that is truly a team effort.

I'm happy with all our work on the demo. It's a fun little playthrough, looks nice, and does a good job of illustrating what Perseus Mandate is all about. I hope that if you're a F.E.A.R. fan looking forward to the expansion, or just a gamer who happens to try it out on a whim, that you enjoy the experience we've put together.




There's a candid, and very interesting, interview with Harvey Smith up at gamasutra right now. Smith talks about his upcoming game, Blacksite: Area 51, as well as a range of political, business and general design issues with the very engaging interviewer on the piece. Harvey Smith was lead designer on Deus Ex and Deus Ex 2: Invisible War, and Blacksite will be his first game for Midway Studios Austin.

The interview touches on a couple of subjects that I've taken interest in myself: he explores the idea of games as a vehicle for subversive political statements and the appeal of using residential and everyday spaces as settings for games in ways that are quite thoughtful, as well as being lent gravity by his long and influential career.

Whenever I've had a chance to read Smith's thoughts online or see him speak in person, I've always been impressed, and felt that he wants a lot of the same things out of games that I do, and thinks about these issues deeply. I wish he kept a blog!




What is it like to be a mafia crime lord? Judging from the film The Godfather, it involves ruthless business dealings behind closed doors, cigar smoke-enshrouded conferences with your consigliari, the pain of exchanging your own humanity for the good of the Family, suddenly losing your loved ones to a hail of bullets, sending out hitmen to do your wetwork, and only occasionally getting your own hands dirty.

Judging from The Godfather video game, it involves a one-man army systematically eradicating hundreds of rival gangsters to conquer every business in the city one block at a time.

The same goes for any other role explored through an action game-- what was it like being a soldier in WW2? You ran down streets killing dozens of nazis at a stretch, blowing up tanks, planes and bridges single-handedly while absorbing, and near-instantly recovering from, hundreds of gunshot wounds. What is it like being a New York police officer? You gun down dozens of heavily-armed criminals on an hourly basis (sometimes with the assistance of slow-mo abilities.) A secret agent? A ninja? A yakuza thug? A space marine? A refugee in an underwater utopia gone wrong? Hell, an MIT-educated nuclear physicist? They all frame the same hook: single-handedly destroy a constant stream of hostile cannon fodder through binary violent conflict. Be a force of nature that crushes his enemies by the truckload. Be an Übermensch, a being that has surpassed mere humanity.

There are generally two aspects of the player character that set it apart: The first is the very autonomy granted via the PC being controlled directly by the player, as opposed to the surrounding characters who all follow programmed behaviors within the gameworld. The PC is an extension of an external force, the human, while NPCs are extensions of the machine.

But the form of the second aspect is specific to each given game, and is a mechanic or set of mechanics that improves the player's chances of survival numerically-- a designed-in advantage that makes the player outright more powerful or hardier than his enemies. Sometimes this power is supported by the game's fiction and sometimes not, but regardless always functions to elevate the player character above his foes, allowing him to kill them off in droves. In Crysis, it's the super-advanced "nanosuit;" in Max Payne or F.E.A.R. it's the ability to engage slow-mo "bullet time;" in Half-Life it's the hazard suit; in The Darkness it's Jackie's demon shroud; in Gears of War it's the ability for the player to regenerate health and be revived by his teammates; in Halo it's Master Chief's recharging energy shield, and so on and so forth.

For most games it's the simple logical fallacy of the player being the only actor in the world capable of refilling his own health. Do you see enemies in any shooter or action game slugging down medkits or painkillers during a fight like the player is able to? Do enemies in the Half-Life universe ever use the med stations placed around the world? Why don't the enemies in Halo or Gears of War have recharging health like the player does? The closest I've seen is the enemies in BioShock running up and using health stations, but they still don't use portable medkits to recharge their health in the midst of battle the way the player does. This imbalance between the player's and enemies' abilities in most combat-based games is simply nonsense, but it gives the player the edge to survive, to rise above his enemies.

The need to cast the player as an Übermensch stems from these games' inability to make a clean break from their roots: the old-school arcade shooter. Let's look at Robotron 2084. In Robotron, the player is presented with a sequential set of rooms. Within each room are two general types of actors beside the player: hostile enemies, who wander around in set patterns, and innocent civilians, who also wander aimlessly. Enemies will attempt to kill both the player and the civlians; the player's goal is to touch ("save") the civilians before they can be destroyed by the enemies, and to clear all the enemies from the room in order to move on the to next. The player character's advantages, beside being an autonomous agent of the player, are the ability to rapidly fire projectiles in each of 8 directions, quicker and more nimble movement than his foes, and the ability to use extra lives to continue once killed. The fiction of the game explains the situation of the player facing a massive enemy force and having extraordinary powers this way:

Inspired by his never-ending quest for progress, in 2084 man perfects the Robotrons: a robot species so advanced that man is inferior to his own creation. Guided by their infallible logic, the Robotrons conclude: the human race is inefficient, and therefore must be destroyed. You are the last hope of mankind. Due to a genetic engineering error, you possess superhuman powers. Your mission is to stop the Robotrons, and save the last human family.
The game's intent was to overwhelm the player with superior numbers, in order to more quickly steal his quarters and thus turn a profit on the game machine. The thing is, the overall structure of the popular single-player video game hasn't changed since Robotron was released in 1982 (note: also the year I was born.) Even today, when the vast majority of video games are played on home consoles and computers, the player must progress in a linear fashion while destroying an army of enemies using his superhuman powers. That's Robotron, it's Double Dragon, it's Resident Evil 4, it's Halo 3, it's BioShock. It's even RPG's like Final Fantasy wherein I kill thousands of monsters over the course of the game, or MMO's where I stomp dozens and dozens of mobs each time I level up. It's beat'em-ups like Bully, The Warriors, or Yakuza (in which my final tally of enemies defeated was 994.)

Single-player games have the potential to be something else. I don't want to be an inhuman, one-man army anymore. Games could instead couch the player as a normal person within a functional gameworld, an equal actor in parallel with all the other characters, an individual that isn't tied to a progression of power from pistol to machine gun to rocket launcher. When I say I want a "GTA with gravity," I necessarily want to play a truly human character. Not a superbeing that can instantly refill their life bar at will, or respawn, unscathed, at a hospital when they die. Not a Man on a Mission to destroy the droves of hellspawn that have invaded the planet. Not an invincible killing machine with a nanosuit and slow-mo powers, or the result of a genetic engineering error. Just a person. Games need to find their humanity.




A day or two ago I went on one of those great, all-morning voyages, starting at one blog then skipping from link to link, reading new articles and presentations I hadn't been exposed to before, downloading new games and demos to try, and just generally soaking in a flow of information that organically led from one node to the next. I started at Clint Hocking's blog, which led to Jonathan Blow's blog, which led to a great rundown of interesting indie games, the transcript of a Raph Koster talk on the spectrum of subject matter in current games, actionbutton.net which is a kind of nauseous Tim Rogers endeavor but had interesting game reviewing from other writers at least, the Realtime Art Manifesto by the team behind The Endless Forest, and more. A good day.

So, via that list above, I downloaded some indie games I hadn't tried before, including Knytt, which is a legitimately lovely, atmospheric little platformer in the vein of Metroid, but with a completely different tone. It's about a dumb little cat who gets abducted by aliens, then must explore all different parts of a surreal planet to collect missing spaceship parts and return home. I played through it in a couple of hours and it made me feel good.

But, all this made me think: Koster is right when he says that mainstream (hereafter referred to as "big") games currently draw from an extremely narrow set of influences 95% of the time (Jake and Chris and I went and saw a double feature of Total Recall and Terminator 2 the other night at the Castro, and we were noting how almost every big action game in the last 20 years has been trying to recreate the experience of these movies.) And I'm sure that Blow would champion indie games as one avenue that consistently explores new and innovative territory in game design. I've talked with friends in the industry about how we wish games could portray some interaction besides gun violence with the attention usually afforded combat, and certainly non-violent, or at least differently-violent, interaction is one trademark of indie games. I want games that do new and different things. I want games to progress, to convey a wider and more nuanced range of experiences. So even though I appreciate them in the brief time I give them, why aren't indie games what drive me?

Over my years of playing video games, I believe that I've come to a sharper and sharper understanding of what specific elements about all the games I've played most interest me. Playing a wide range of games over time is an ongoing process of exploration--exploring systems, exploring your own reactions to the overall productions--one which eventually allows you to delineate just what it is about games that makes you keep playing, keep paying attention. In my case, I can sum up what I want to do in a game this way:

I want to fully inhabit a single, human character within a believable and functional playable space, to express a complete and satisfying narrative arc by affecting change in the gameworld itself through my own meaningful decisions.

And the above, taken in sum total, I believe lies outside the scope of the indie game sphere. Not that I don't appreciate indie games at all, but in my experience their strengths lie in a number of specific areas-- expression of meaning strictly through inventive mechanics; conveying atmosphere via primitive visuals and sound; trying out new kinds of interaction that haven't been explored before, through highly abstract means-- that don't address the above. Indie games can be groundbreaking, freed from enormous financial investment and publisher demands, but they can't, as far as I've seen, provide me the fully-realized gameworld and inhabitable player character that a big game is capable of.

Which is to say that I can still enjoy indie games, but only briefly, or from afar, at least in their current state. But with the technology available today, indie games could also encompass my ideal core experience that I describe above, given the right approach. Tools are available, relatively cheaply or freely, to construct fully-realized functional worlds in true 3D, but low fidelity (outdated big game engines like the Unreal Engine 2, the Half-Life engine, old versions of Lithtech, etc. as well as open source 3D engines like Ogre.) The form of big games hasn't progressed in exceptionally significant ways since the turn of the millennium; there is nothing being done today, mechanically, that can't be accomplished with the engine technology of 2001. A small, dedicated team, with just the slightest amount of backing, could create a complete game on the scale of, say, System Shock 2, but with an indie outlook-- a setting and cast of characters that expressed an entirely different experience than what is usually encountered in a big game, an open-structure, believable world that exists unto itself, a unique set of mechanics leading to new, progressive dynamics, new forms of interaction, and so forth. By utilizing the technology of yesterday, but the forward-thinking design sense of today, indie teams could convey the "big experience" in ways that conservative, high-fidelity big games aren't allowed.

Beside an arbitrary adherence to exploring the "old-school" space, there's no reason for all indie games to remain 2D, or tile-based, or side-scrolling, or shoot-em-upping, or any other standards of that realm. And with digital distribution gone from a reality to practically the standard on PC, there's no reason for an indie team not to build something amazing that goes beyond the miniature scale of most indie games, and deliver it directly to an audience that would stand up and take notice. I want to love indie games. But I guess I want to love what they could be, not quite what they are.



Justification 5

PC / 2002 / Developer: Illusion Softworks / Publisher: Gathering of Developers

Mafia is one of those games that I played through only once, but that single playthrough left a strong impression upon me, even years after the fact. Enough time has passed that it's no longer the specifics that impress me, but a general impression of the tone of the narrative and the gameworld itself. Mafia is one of those games that successfully used every element of the presentation and mechanics to reinforce both the setting and the character arcs woven through the central narrative, to achieve a rare sense of cohesion and gravity.

At the begining of the game, the player character is an undistinguished everyman, a cab driver in the fictional city of Lost Heaven, USA, during the thick of Prohibition and the end of the Great Depression. One night, he has a run-in with a couple of local mobsters, and helps them out of a tight spot. Eventually he is adopted into the Family, and through the game rises in the organization while completing missions in service of the Don. His conscience and allegiances are tested, and he eventually finds that no one makes it out of the Family clean.

The city of Lost Heaven, obviously a stand-in for Chicago, expresses the period believably throughout-- the architecture, cars, music, costumes, and general ambiance all echo what we've seen in pre-war film and more recent period pieces. Lost Heaven isn't outsized, and it isn't a cartoon, unlike the city settings in, say, the GTA3 series. The mechanics also present Lost Heaven as a real place: if a cop is around and catches you speeding or running a red light, you will be pulled over and have to pay a fine. The cars you drive accelerate and handle like the real cars of the period: slow off the mark, without a tight turning radius, and if you beat them up too much they'll grind to a halt. Mafia succeeds in placing the player in a believable space, one that acts like it should, that supports the fiction and creates a tone unique from other games.

Similarly, the characters come across as real people, with their own motivations and outlooks on life. One of your fellow mobsters, the DeNiro type, an enforcer like yourself, demonstrates that his first priority is always loyalty to the Family; another, the Don's personal accountant, has a wife and daughter, and his allegiance to his family and to the Family cause some of the central tension of the narrative; another, the Pesci stand-in, is more in it for thrills and the pay-off, but is endearing in his own way. The Don of the family is both fatherly and somewhat aloof, portrayed as slightly detached, but a figure that the younger mobsters can look up to in that anti-heroic way. The central conflict of the story revolves around the concept of Loyalty-- loyalty to whom, under what pressures, and what that means. What happens when the natural inclination towards compassion collides with the obligations of loyalty? When one is disloyal to the Family, can they ever truly outrun their past?

Mafia is somewhat like GTA, in that there's an open city, and driving, and shooting. But the game achieves an effect much more in line with my desire for a "GTA with gravity." It places you as a living actor in a believable city, wherein your actions have consequences, and the overall thrust of the game propels the player toward a comprehensive conclusion to a satisfying narrative arc. There are certainly more mechanical constraints on the player's actions in Mafia than in GTA, but that's what gives the actions performed impact, and maintains the cohesiveness of the setting. I remember thinking at the time that Mafia was the first truly "mature" action game story I'd ever played through, and while other games have tried admirably, Mafia still stands apart. It achieved this by consistently showing restraint instead of going over the top. Every developer should be so committed to fully realizing the game space they set out to portray.




Official update: I'm moving back to San Francisco, and I'm taking my job with me.

It's been almost six months now that I've lived in Sugar Land, 2000 miles away from Rachel. Work on Perseus Mandate is wrapping up, and I need to get back home. Rachel and I have both spent enough of our lives in a long-distance relationship.

I told TimeGate I had to get back to San Francisco by September, and they said, "Why don't you do that, and keep working for us from there?" So, I move back on the 16th and immediately start working remotely for TimeGate from my apartment. I'll maintain all my responsibilities but submit my work online, and be flown on-site every once in a while to collaborate directly in the office.

I have high hopes for the setup. I think I'll be very productive at home, and that my communication online and over the phone with my cohorts back in Texas will be effective. I'll look forward to my occasional visits to the office as well-- as I mentioned to the people here, it will be much more realistic for me to have a long-distance relationship with my office than my girlfriend. That much I'm sure of.

In any case, it's been a good but difficult six months. Here's hoping that the next six are even better, and much easier to live with. San Francisco, I'm coming home.




So, what makes video games unique? What makes them special, as a form of entertainment? What does the player get out of playing a game that other pastimes can't give them?

There are obvious formal differences between video games and other types of analog games, and between video games and other forms of non-game entertainment. But, what does that amount to, from a player-psychological point of view? In understanding what a video game is, the question becomes: why is the experience compelling? What are the universal benefits across genres?

As I see it, all video games provide the player with two primary motivational elements: an artificial sense of entropy, and an artificial set of goals. In addressing these elements, the player receives a tangible sensation of control, and of accomplishment.

Any given video game drops the player into a situation with a high degree of entropy, in one form or another. Through play, the user brings order to the entropic situation. I believe that it's an inherent human psychological need to bring order to disorderly situations-- it's satisfying on some base level that we all share, whether it's straightening up an untidy room or weeding a garden. Every video game is in essence a disarranged sliding tile puzzle, or a Rubik's Cube, waiting to be set straight. Video games give this ageless conflict between order and disorder a wide variety of highly complex forms, and provide the player with tools to exert control over the chaos.
One clear, recent example of this aspect of games is Katamari Damacy. As the Prince of the Cosmos, the player is dropped onto the Earth, and told to gather up objects by using his katamari, to build huge clumps of mass that are then shot up into space and turned into stars. In practice, each level of the game is a large space populated with scattered detritus, clutter, and wandering critters, and the player is given a tool to gather up all this junk into one huge pile. At the start of the level, the space is highly entropic; through the player's input, order is brought to the space, consolidating the scattered bits into one central, manageable form. It's a satisfying sensation-- I've never met anyone who wasn't sucked in by the katamari.

But I think every single video game you've ever played shares this dynamic of allowing the player to bring order to entropy. In a corridor shooter game, the player proceeds down a path strewn with spaces filled by hostile NPCs. Each room filled with enemies is its own entropic arena-- upon entering it, the space is overrun by independent actors who act in a destructive manner, lending chaos and uncertainty to the room. By defeating these enemies and clearing the room of entropic actors, the player brings order to the space-- even if it is through the barrel of a gun.

The Civilization games place the player as a tiny force within an uncertain world filled by hostile factions, and challenges the player to bring order to the world by unifying it under one banner, by removing the fog of war from the map and ordering the globe with an interconnected matrix of cities and roads. Adventure games present the player with a series of unsolved puzzles and random objects sown throughout the gameworld, and challenge the player to gather the items together into his inventory, combine them in meaningful ways, and bring about order by resolving each waiting conundrum in turn. The Sims releases a handful of characters into an empty lot, and gives the player tools to order their lives into a working home, productive daily routine, and an interconnected social network. Tetris throws a randomized series of shapes at the player and challenges him to create orderly lines out of them, containing the entropy onscreen to keep his head above water.

The other, more straightforward aspect of video games that appeals to player psychology is the variety of goals they provide. These can be overt or implied goals, from an NPC telling you to bring him a certain object, to an enemy that must be defeated, to the knowledge that 100 pickup items are scattered around the world that the player will be rewarded for gathering, to there simply being a very high peak in the gameworld that the player decides he wants to scale. In completing these goals, the player receives an immediate and very tangible sense of accomplishment.

These sensations, accomplishment and control, are feelings that everyone requires, but that can be elusive in everyday life. There are limited elements of the day-to-day that we as individuals have direct control over, and real accomplishments can be long in coming, or muddled with compromise. All video games, in their myriad forms, provide a surrogate for these essential sensations, miniature worlds wherein the player can receive positive reinforcement through their own actions, cleanly and instantaneously.




The project I'm working on at TimeGate has been officially announced. It's F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate, a new standalone expansion for F.E.A.R. Not much concrete info has been released yet, but I was responsible for the demo level that's going to be shown later this week during E3, so my work will be the first public face of Perseus Mandate. Like the earlier F.E.A.R. demos, this one is a compilation of bits and pieces from the single-player campaign, grafted together into one continuous level, with a little polish and additional content provided by yours truly. So, most of the core content was created by my fellow LD's here at TimeGate; I just chose, arranged, and finished parts of their work to act as a showcase for what's new in this expansion.

I haven't got a whole lot else to say about it at this point, beside that I'm proud to have been given the responsibility of debuting our product to the world, and that I hope its public reception is positive. Unfortunately I won't be able to show much of my own work on the project until the game ships, but I'll try to give some sort of behind-the-scenes look at the demo creation process once it's been shown to the press.

F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate-- my first title as a designer!




On sort of a whim, I rented The Darkness on Friday night and burned through it by Sunday morning. I really hadn't been following the game before its release, even though I played through and loved Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The preview materials I'd seen didn't grab me; the premise and mechanics weren't too appealing from the little I read, and the lame license definitely didn't help. But luckily, between my fond memories of Riddick and the positive reviews the game's been getting, I convinced myself to go pick it up. Luckily that is, because it's awesome.

As far as I'm concerned, the game's defining characteristic is that it doesn't treat the player like an idiot-- it gives you a world and trusts you to find your way around; it gives you objectives, and trusts you to figure out how to complete them. Structurally, the gameworld is laid out as an array of individual interconnected spaces that all feed back into a central hub area, the New York subway system. The wonderful thing is that the game doesn't hold your hand-- there's no minimap, no magical compass pointing to an objective marker, no voice in your ear from home base steering you where to go (besides The Darkness itself that is, which only serves to taunt you along the way.) If I have an objective at the corner of Mulberry & Orchid on the Lower East Side, I actually have to use signs, maps, and landmarks in the gameworld itself to navigate to my destination. In the subway, I look for the signs that point to the train I need to take; I get on the train, then look for a sign that leads me to the Lower East Side station exit; then I look at a street map posted near the station to find where the intersection of Mulberry & Orchid is compared to my current location; finally, I read the streetsigns on the corner to tell when I've gotten where I need to go. Navigation in The Darkness works just like in real life, which is incredibly refreshing compared to the usual contrivances and conveniences found in games. It brings the player down to earth, and removes a layer of abstraction that otherwise tends to distance the player from the experience. I remain engaged even when simply navigating from point to point, instead of passively following a waypoint while my mind wanders.

Experientially, the game has a great deal of texture to it, which is to be lauded. It's multifaceted; its intensity level actually ebbs and rises between high- and low-impact objectives. For every moment of extreme, over-the-top demon-assisted gun violence there's a counterbalancing moment of simple exploration, a conversation with an NPC, or a low-key, non-combat objective. I love that the game's stated objectives range from "kill the Chicago family's West Coast guy on the Lower East Side" to "blow out your birthday candles;" from "wipe out the gang that hangs around the Whitefish Pool Hall" to "go visit your Aunt Sarah." The game lets you breathe; it lets you have a wide spectrum of experiences within a cohesive gameworld. Maybe the most awe-inspiring gaming moment I've had this year was simply pressing A to sit on the couch with Jackie's girlfriend Jenny, and watching from first-person as the two of them quietly sat together in front of the tv, wrestled over the remote, kissed, and finally seeing Jenny curl up with her head on Jackie's shoulder as she went to sleep. It was touching, familiar, and moving in how unique it was in the context of a game. It was a human experience, made the more powerful for its contrast with both the hyperviolence of the other half of the Darkness's play mechanics, and with the typical imagery seen throughout the spectrum of high-budget action games in general. Moments like this are incredibly important when it comes to motivating the player through the later stages of the narrative. The player builds a simple memory of this encounter and others with Jenny, a genuine connection to the character, which gives terrible gravity to the climax of the first act, and propels the player with true animosity along the central line of the game's revenge plot. The Darkness managed to make me care.

There were plenty of other things I enjoyed about the game: the outstanding dialogue, voice acting and characterization of the cast of players, the ruthless execution kills and general chaos of the combat, the game's unique vision of Hell, the top-notch presentation throughout in both the interface elements and the gameworld itself, and more. In all, The Darkness made me happy to be playing a game by guys who clearly "get it;" in all respects, it's a very forward-thinking design, and manages to make an affecting experience out of that lame license that I mentioned earlier. This is a game by guys who set out to make a game they wanted to play, out of a license they wanted to adapt, and pulled it off.
The above ethic can describe a number of their label-mates who are also published by Take2/2K Games: All of Rockstar's studios (responsible for Bully, the Warriors, and GTA,) Remedy (responsible for Max Payne and the upcoming Alan Wake,) and Irrational (whose Bioshock is being published by Take2 this year.) They're all projects with a soul, projects that are borne out of their studio's desire to realize a vision they have for the unique experiences they want to convey. Take2 gives these ventures wings, backs their developers' visions instead of treating them as mills to execute their movie-of-the-week tie-in contracts. I respect that kind of game--the kind with a soul-- and Take2 for believing in them and making them possible. Based on their lineup, I'd say that Take2 is the best, most progressive big-name publisher in the business today. It's a shame that, from what I've read, Take2 is going through tough times. I hope that, if they go under, someone else will be around to support the dark horses of the AAA game development community.