What ranking did you get last time you parallel parked?

This past weekend, Rachel and I went to the Exploratorium together. It's a hands-on science museum featuring interactive exhibits that demonstrate how the human senses and other natural phenomena work. It makes apparent many things in your everyday life that you take for granted or wouldn't otherwise be able to detect, such as exactly which points you look at when observing a photograph.

We went out to dinner afterwards. As I washed my hands in the bathroom, I imagined an exhibit that might observe you while you washed your hands, and give you a readout of how "well" or completely you had washed them, giving you a "Percentage Clean" rating, or a graphical representation of the spots you had cleaned or missed.

Though something like this would be complex to accomplish in real life, it would be par for the course in a video game. You have your avatar wash its hands, perform whatever inputs are required, and the game rates you on how well you did. Supplying control input to, and receiving tangible feedback from, "the computer" is part and parcel of the gaming experience. Tailoring your input to attain a specific numerical rating (the "perfect game" or "S Rank") is the central mechanic of many games-- Dance Dance Revolution, one-on-one fighters, shmups, and so forth.

Everything that happens in a game can easily be tracked internally (see the stats screens for Rockstar's GTA3 series and Bully); the question to the designer is: which information is revealed to the player, and which remains hidden? It's an interesting aspect of design, since any statistical information that the game reveals which the player cannot visually observe himself exposes the "third man" in every scene-- the Omnicient Eye of "the computer," which doesn't otherwise exist as an entity in the diegesis of the gameworld. In a game, you could be supplied with a numerical ranking upon completing the hand-washing action, but if you somehow received this data when washing your hands in real life, what would the implication be? That you were being surveilled by some unseen force.

In a game with a realistic setting, I think designer-dictated information control is important as a means of maintaining the game's artifice. If my character is in a gritty, real-world locale, performing down-to-earth, human-scale actions, numerical stats and ratings are going to break the suspension of disbelief-- how is my Strength rating of 8 derived? Did I get that from my yearly physical exam? Does my avatar "feel" objectively like he has about an 8 in strength relative to other people? How do I know the Armor Rating of a leather jacket? I've never seen it sewn onto the tag of any article of clothing I've ever bought. Anything in life is only knowable through direct observation-- as I practice something, there's no meter for me to fill or any objective scale for "leveling up"; I can only determine my own improvement through direct observation of the results of my practice.

Hereby, in a game where my character increases in skill over the course of the game, I would much rather have all the numbers hidden from my view as a player. If I practice shooting, I would love for the only feedback I get about skill improvement to be my character's shots becoming observably more accurate; I'd love not to have a weapon's effectiveness determined by its having an "Attack Rating of 10," but by my observing that, yes, a claw hammer is a fairly deadly bludgeoning weapon, and I know my character to be fairly strong, and when I try out swinging the weapon at a piece of plywood, observing that the wood is cracked in half.

The other side of this would be intentionally designing the game to provide the player with excessive amounts of tracking information that they would never be able to observe on their own, very overtly throughout normal play. This approach could effectively reinforce the futuristic Police State as a setting. Consider playing a character in a setting like that of 1984 or Minority Report; each action you performed, even when your character was completely alone, could present the player with a numerical score onscreen, implying their actions being constantly watched and recorded through some sort of active surveillance, acknowledging the computer's Omniscient Eye as an active entity in the gameworld.

Just another instance of the possibilities of a designer intentionally uses a game's "gaminess" to aesthetic ends.




Official announcement:

I will begin work as a level designer at TimeGate Studios on March 12th!

TimeGate's most recent release was Extraction Point, the official expansion pack for F.E.A.R. Considering my work with WorldEdit and the F.E.A.R. maps I've released, I would say that TimeGate and I are a pretty good match :-)

TimeGate has been on the scene since the late 90's, gaining prominence with the Kohan series of RTS games before switching gears with the release of Extraction Point. I was very impressed with my playthrough of the expansion, which recently won PC Gamer Magazine's Expansion of the Year 2006 award. It's a great team of guys there and I'm excited about the project.

I'll be moving to Texas immediately after GDC. I'll miss being in the Bay Area with Rachel and everyone else I know here, but I feel like taking on this new role will be worth it.

I hope to find the time to release BENEATH pt. 2, which is not so far from completion at this point. I'd like to make it a priority, as I'd hate to see this go unfinished, since I'm excited about how I plan to finish up the story.

In any case, with this move I'll be a professional designer, which just makes me happy beyond words. I'll keep this blog up to date with how it all works out. Thanks to everyone who's provided me with the encouragement and support to do this thing. Lone star state, here I come :-)




As any dilligent nerd should, I've familiarized myself with the ouevre of Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka. His storytelling is masterful, and some of it is simply mind-blowing in scope. Over the decades that he produced material, he created an incredible range of properties, from Kimba the White Lion, to Black Jack the outlaw surgeon, to the millenia-spanning Phoenix series, to an eight-volume retelling of the life of Buddha, and of course his trademark character, Astro Boy.

Until recently, the original, Tezuka-directed Astro Boy animated series from the 60's wasn't available domestically. Now it's been released in two excellent box sets, the first of which I picked up and have been watching an episode or two of per night.

The thing that stands out about Tezuka is that he is first and foremost an entertainer, regardless of his subject matter. His stories are all peppered with flashy fights and plenty of quick little jokes and sight gags. Thereby, even a story with a deep theme and complex plot can entertain a viewer who's simply interested in a few laughs.
For instance: Astro Boy is a children's show, but the most recent episode we watched operated on a few assumptions that would most likely go over the intended audience's head, and featured a few quick twists that led to a significantly complicated plot. To synopsize:

Some 50 years ago, a prominent scientist, "Dr. I.C. Frost," hypothesized that if astronauts could freeze themselves during an extremely long space flight, they would be able to defrost upon arrival to explore faraway planets otherwise unreachable by humans. So, to prove that his theory is right, he established a secret lab in a hidden facility in the deserts of Egypt, built a robotic sphinx and an army of robotic crabs for protection, constructed his cryogenic chamber, and froze himself, to be defrosted in 100 years. Present day (50 years on): a nefarious character has set his sights on Dr. Frost's well-guarded technology, and employs a covert agent to kidnap Astro Boy, drain him of all but the last reserves of his power, and strand him in the desert. Having no memory of how he got there, Astro calls out for help, lost in the wastes. The nefarious character "rescues" him, restoring his power on the condition that Astro will help him in his "expedtion" to an "ancient tomb." Astro proceeds to do battle with the guardian crabs and the Sphinx, gaining entry to the secret lab. However, upon her defeat, the Sphinx reveals the nature of the tomb/lab, Dr. Frost's wishes, and her purpose. Astro then realizes he's been had, drives away the nefarious man and his crew, and agrees to keep Dr. Frost's resting place a secret between himself and the Sphinx, until Dr. Frost awakens once again. Astro flies off to another adventure, ending the episode.

Note that the above is stated in chronological order, whereas the TV episode starts at present day, and reveals the backstory later on.

The point of typing all that out was to illustrate that 1) the show's premise was based upon an understanding of the speed of spaceflight to other star systems and the concept of cyrogenics, and 2) the plot itself is fairly complex and relies on a dialogue between two different time periods and a third-act "reveal" of the nefarious character's true nature. Regardless of how far some or all of this might fly over the heads of an audience of children, the show succeeds in engaging and entertaining any viewer by featuring frequent robot combat (between Astro and the crab robots, and Astro and the Sphinx,) and a constant stream of very clever little sight gags, inserted during otherwise mundane sequences. So, a viewer that doesn't understand or care about the plot can nonetheless enjoy the show entirely for the frequent robot fighting and simple jokes, and maybe absorb the themes of the story along with the core entertainment factor.

I think that video games are ideally suited to be message delivery systems (MDS) following just the same formula. The main draw, the core experience, of a video game is the gameplay itself, which in many cases is buffered by narrative elements. The gameplay is wholly separate from the narrative; one can easily exist independent of the other. However, in most narrative games, the story elements support the gameplay and vice versa, or the two elements at least run alongside one another. Much like the viewer of an Astro Boy cartoon can enjoy the jokes and action without appreciating the overall plot and themes, the player of a game can enjoy jumping and fighting and leveling up without investing himself in the story. It's the idea of the short positive feedback loop, laid out by a colleague of mine and expanded upon further in this Gamasutra article-- the player (or viewer) is driven forward by constant small rewards to complete a larger task. The classic Lucasarts adventures are successful for the exact same reason the classic Astro Boy is: there's a joke at every turn (every click,) giving the player constant tidbits of entertainment regardless of their overall investment or progress through the total work. Overserious adventures fall flat, since when the player is stuck, they have no levity to tide them over until they figure out that frustrating puzzle. Genuinely funny adventures that keep the player stuck for too long also fail, since hearing the same jokes repeatedly stops being funny.

The possibilities for subversion in games are endless, and some games have begun to mine those possibilities. Grand Theft Auto 3 comes to mind, as does the more recent Dead Rising. GTA3's draw was the open-world action gameplay: ramping cars over buildings, blowing up crowds of onlookers, leading the cops on wild chases through the city. And yet, even if the player completely ignored the core storyline to freeform, every radio station that played in every vehicle was densely packed with ruthless satire of American culture in the form of Laszlow's bewildered talk show hosting, and the variety of consumer-lampooning advertisements that played between songs. The gameplay itself was the draw and the experience that sustained the title, but it also acted as a message delivery system, inundating the player with Rockstar's very specific point of view.

Dead Rising is the more recent, and more overt, but relatively less successful example, as its message is largely delivered during skippable cutscenes, as opposed to alongside the gameplay itself. It's great nonetheless-- it's a Japanese game, clearly made for the American market (released exclusively on the 360,) starring American characters and taking place in America, but the story itself is explicitly anti-American, anti-consumerism, anti-Western-culture. The draw of the gameplay is smashing thousands of zombies, and smash zombies you do, but at each plot point the thrust of the narrative rails on the Western way of life, targetting American gluttony, virulent consumerism, and government corruption. The idea of consumer as zombie, admittedly lifted from Dawn of the Dead, and the rampant destruction of all the products and shops in the mall as an anti-consumerist fantasy do underpin the gameplay itself, but the real, outright message delivery occurs during the discrete, skippable cutscenes, and fails to some degree through lack of integration with the core experience.
In the past, I've seen the disconnect between gameplay and narrative to be a failing of games; ideally, I believe that the player's actions should BE the narrative of the game, the events themselves perpetrated by the player dictating entirely "what happens," as opposed to the separate gameplay simply propelling the player to the next pre-scripted sequence. But I think there's a huge amount of value in intentionally exploiting that disconnect in the current generation of games to subversive ends. Since the gameplay lacks bearing on the narrative, the narrative can be whatever the designer wants. Players will consume enjoyable gameplay first and foremost, and swallow whatever rides sidecar to that experience. This is true of any game, even those with the highest production values, extending this concept to the widest possible audience. What's most exciting to me about this concept is that it's a chance for games to have tangible social impact-- something that, as a medium with an extemely large and impressionable audience, it's high time they achieved.





This Friday we went to one night of the Noir City film series at the Castro Theatre in town. I love old film, especially stuff immediately pre- or post-war, including pre-code American pictures, Alfred Hitchcock, and pulp noirs. Friday was definitely about pulp, but it was also a tribute to cinematographer John Alton, so it was all beautifully shot and the imagery was just stunning.

The movies were definitely grade B as far as their star power and scriptwriting went, which is the draw of half the films shown at the Castro. It's also part of what made the evening interesting to me, as a viewer. The audience was definitely not taking the films overly seriously, and there ended up being a lot of "laugh lines" throughout both films that I wondered if I would've noticed or enjoyed if I'd been watching them at home on DVD. Seeing film in a theatre, especially with a big crowd of fellow movie lovers, is a truly communal experience.

It's something that, I guess, video games will never have, which may be to their benefit or detriment as a cultural medium. Games are integrally focused on the individual, the player, even when that player is participating in a multiplayer game; the player's experience is entirely self-centered, whereas the moveigoer's experience is entirely... hmm, the opposite of that. "Self-sublimating"? Maybe "introverted" versus "extroverted?" The film experience is entirely focused on the actions of others onscreen and in the movie theatre, is what I mean to say. In other words, much of the enjoyment of these films came from vicariously sharing the exact same experience with hundreds of others simultaneously, and my reactions to the events onscreen resonating through them.

I'm not sure what the implication is. I feel that games have a harder road to hoe than movies since, at their inception as a mass medium, anyone with a nickel could walk into a theatre and see a movie, enjoy it with others, discuss it with others, share it with others, and walk out with no baggage. All games (except arcade games, which were simple and have fallen out of favor) require a significant hardware buy-in, and can only be shared with a limited audience (usually at most the players involved in the game and a few onlookers, barring public tournament situations.) Games as an experience are more intimate-- based on the player's actions themselves and limited in being shared with a living room of others-- which is powerful, but also precludes the accessibility and appeal to the collective unconcscious that moviegoing provides.

Something like World of Warcraft probably appeals better to the strengths of both games and movies (a player-driven experience that is nonethless unchanging in its nature and shared simultaneously by tens of thousands of others on your server, as well as requiring only the bare minimum computer that most people already have for e-mail.) I hope someday this genre of game will be able to develop more engaging and meaningful play to go along with its appealing base architecture.