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.