2009 was a weird one for games. There were no real monolithic standouts in my mind, unlike 07 (Portal, BioShock, Super Mario Galaxy,) or 08 (Fallout 3, GTA4.) So it wasn't easy, but I fought through the pain to bring you this, my favorite games of 2009. In no particular order.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories: I wrote this one up as a long-form critique just now, so I'll refer you to that post for details. But suffice to say, immersion in the world of Silent Hill was clearly one of the highest goals of Climax in creating Shattered Memories, and they succeeded to an impressive degree. Features graphical technology I was surprised to find on the Wii, and a design which ignores genre boundaries. Cold outside? It's colder in Silent Hill. Play it!

Zeno Clash & The Path: I also wrote these up earlier this year, so I won't go on about them here. I love the scope of these games, and the strange new worlds they give the player access to. Personal to the authors in completely different ways, these outstanding single-A games shouldn't be missed. They'll only ask a few hours of your time each. A small price to pay for such unique experiences.

Batman Arkham Asylum: Everybody loves this one, mostly just for "nailing it" on every front. The visuals, the combat, the collectibles and puzzles and exploration, all top-notch. But I think the game should be lauded for more than just polished execution: both the existing systems chosen and recombined in intriguing ways, and the new ones created from scratch, imply a kind of insight and economy that only comes from a deep literacy with game systems. Similar in ways to another remarkable licensed game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, the team at Rocksteady used all their knowledge of disparate game mechanics to fully express the experience of being Batman, not just through aesthetics but through exploration and play. A real achievement.

GTA4 Episodes: I have a lot of respect for Rockstar's approach to GTA4 and its episodes: they spent an enormous amount of time building Liberty City to tell Niko Bellic's story, and then for each expansion they picked a new protagonist and told his story in that same vibrant city. It's an economical reuse of existing content that allows the player to see the familiar city from new perspectives. It expands the idea of Liberty City as a place, showing you new facets with each episode, giving you the feeling that there really are a million stories in the naked city, and you've been lucky enough to experience a few. The tone of the episodes diverge wildly from the main game, especially The Lost & Damned, which is dark, grim, and sober in a way that few games can claim. The Lost's leader, Billy, is one of the most unique and convincing characters I've met in a game, a testament to the chops that Dan Houser and his writing partner Rupert Humphries have developed since GTA3. If you forgot about the monumental accomplishment that was GTA4's Liberty City, diving back into the episodes is a worthwhile reminder.

Retro Game Challenge: This DS game caught me by surprise. While the updated remakes of classic 8-bit games are fun (and thankfully leverage a number of usability advances discovered over the last 20 years,) what really hooked me was the loving simulation of childhood spent on the carpet with a Nintendo controller in hand. Sitting next to your friend in front of the TV, chatting in hushed tones about secrets and cheat codes, gleefully poring over the newest issue of your favorite video game magazine, yelps of excitement or disappointment at the ups and downs of each game... it'll strike a chord with any lifelong gamer, and it all felt warm, real and genuine. I think one mark of a mature medium is its ability to create entertainment about itself (see the flourishing of movies about making and watching movies in the mid-20th-century.) Retro Game Challenge is only a tiny, tiny step, but a heartfelt and inspiring one.

Brutal Legend: For me, Brutal Legend was all about the world. I'm a sucker for driving a vehicle around a height map (see my total lack of hatred for the Mass Effect side-missions) and the world of Brutal Legend is an amazing place to do so. Both in concept and execution, the craggy mountains and twisted forests populated by outsized icons of classic heavy metal were amazing to behold. You owe it to yourself to drive Eddie Riggs' hot rod, "The Deuce," through Brutal Legend's stunningly-imagined vistas.

Street Fighter 4: Simply put, I haven't laughed so much at probably any game as I have playing SF4 in the conference room over lunches at 2K Marin. The fact that humor in games is "hard to do" comes up fairly often-- only because people think of "humor" as "jokes," which lose their power after their first telling. But humor is when something funny happens, and games are the only entertainment medium capable of making funny things happen in completely unplanned and unexpected ways. In the right company, Street Fighter 4, with its cartoonish brutality, over-the-top animations, and always-surprising reversals of fortune is a consistent laugh riot. Thank you, Capcom.

House of the Dead Overkill: It's a totally good lightgun shooter for the Wii, doing what House of the Dead does right: zombie dismemberment, split-second bonus coins to hit, relentless bosses. It adds buyable weapon unlocks and upgrades as well as a host of extras. But what sets it apart is the Planet Terror-"inspired" aesthetic, painting the game in a decidedly 21st-century mis-remembering of classic 70's grindhouse cinema. The yellowed, scratched celluloid filters, the skipping soundtrack, the overwrought narrator and super-sensationalist plot points give the whole production a unique twist. The humor is hit-or-miss: the intentional (but still aggravating) overuse of the F-bomb is sometimes funny, but mostly falls flat. But the ending-- god, the shocking, Freudian, scatological, insane ending makes it all worthwhile. Play it with a friend.

Might & Magic Clash of Heroes: I haven't generally been big into DS games. It's just not a format I want to spend time hunched over for long. But Clash of Heroes kept me absolutely hooked for the entirety of a cross-country flight, and for that I'm grateful. It's a really clever system wherein Bejeweled-style color matching puzzles cross with turn-based combat, special abilities and experience points. It's addictive on multiple fronts, but not in a way that feels cheap or exploitative. Quite the opposite: it's clever and lighthearted, and rewards you for the investment and skill you must exhibit to defeat enemies that are high above your own level. Novel, satisfying, and well worth playing.

Flower: I covered Flower earlier this year when I played it on a friend's PS3. It's one of those experiences that makes me grateful to whomever greenlights downloadable games at Sony. Flower connects the player's unconscious manipulation of Sixaxis motion controls so directly to its lush and fluid visuals that I felt closer to the sensation of floating on the wind than in any piece of media I've ever experienced. It's a real accomplishment, and helps answer the question: what else can video games do?

Saira: I also covered Saira at length earlier this month. I love everything about it: its big explorable galaxy and the way each planet feels unique and different; its open-endedness and faith in the player to explore it all and find their own way; its incredible variety of clever and unique puzzles, challenges and world layouts; its broad feature set, with everything from a starmap to a working PDA to interstellar radio stations to unique protagonist outfits for each different environment. It has that unmistakable Nifflas charm to it (the adorable ambient creatures being maybe the most obvious trademark) but in a new and stunning high-res style that mixes photography with pixel art, paper cutouts, and animation that's so smooth it almost looks rotoscoped. My favorite thing about Saira is that it constantly makes you think, and think hard. Every moment you're making and retaining connections, both spatial and logical. "Ah, I found the clue for this puzzle on that last planet, I'll need to open up my PDA and find the photo I took." "Ah, I can see an adjacent cavern and the entrance is through the top, I'll have to climb up there to make my way in." "Ah, the pool that lets me fly is here, I bet if I fly and use my momentum I can get up there." "Ah, this machine is deactivated and the wire leads to it from the east, I'll have to head that way to turn it on." Constant, meaningful mental investment is the trademark of the experience, all wrapped up in a unique and fanciful set of worlds like you've never seen. I couldn't love it more.

You owe it to yourself to play these games. Hope you had a great year and that 2010 is even better.


Quick critique: Silent Hill Shattered Memories

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is an incredibly interesting and enjoyable... what is it, exactly? Well, it's Silent Hill. Which in this case means an immersive third-person/first-person psychological horror adventure. Bit of a mouthful. But the immediacy of navigating this new imagining of that town, Silent Hill, is wonderfully compelling. When not being chased by faceless ghouls, you spend most of your time quietly walking through snowbound streets and abandoned shops, your ever-present flashlight (aimed by the Wii remote) casting enormous shadows on walls and ceilings, searching for locks, drawers and cabinets to physically grab hold of and manipulate (by "pinching" with A+B and moving the remote,) or for numbers to punch into your smartphone, hoping to make contact with some other living person. Just exploring the town in this manner gave me one of the strongest senses of presence in a gameworld that I've felt in quite some time. It's the kind of stuff I find extremely compelling, and it kept me riveted to the game from start to finish, tearing through it ravenously in less than a day like some people do with a novel they just can't put down. The breadth of what you do in the game enhances the feeling of being a person in a place, not a limited bundle of verbs bouncing through a series of boxes: you'll be interviewed by a psychotherapist, driven around in cars (and given full ability to slide from seat to seat and mess with the locks and windows,) log into computers, mess with a fully functional smartphone, and occasionally perform the simple act of walking down the street and chatting with another character. It all gives your experience in Silent Hill the kind of fullness that is so often missing from games. It is an exceptional experience, and one I recommend very highly. I'll quibble a bit though. This is a critique after all.

The story and challenges wrapped up in the experience tend to be enjoyable, if not quite all there. Disappointingly, the key to every single locked door in the game will be somewhere in the adjacent room (aside from a couple isolated exceptions in the later Nightmare sequences.) It's missing what I so loved about Saira-- that sense of not just making logical connections but spatial connections. I remember past Silent Hills (okay, Silent Hill 2, my only other strong point of reference) having much more spatially-scattered puzzles, which is great! "Ah, right, this key must be for that locked door I saw in that other building. I should head over there." You feel smart for remembering various points in the gameworld and drawing lines between them. Each major location, such as the apartment complex or the abandoned hospital, was its own convoluted, self-contained untying knot. When the key and the lock are sitting right next to each other, there's not much satisfaction in the brief, perfunctory act of untying.

The game is schismatic in general, as there are two separate modes of play: exploration, and the Nightmare. This could be thematically interesting, and does work in the game's favor when the transition to the Nightmare coincides with a traumatic story event. But deciding there will be no combat in the game, and that being chased by phantoms will only ever occur in the Nightmare, removes all tension from the exploration half of the game. Which is a shame, because if ever a player should feel tense, it's when they're wandering through an abandoned high school/hospital/amusement park, alone in the dark with only a flashlight. It's a problem that's not new to Shattered Memories: a consistent complaint with F.E.A.R., for instance, was that the supernatural stuff was never a threat (until the end,) so why be scared of it? In the same way, why be scared in the creaking, empty children's restaurant when I know that monsters only come out during the Nightmare? Well, there is no reason. Removing combat from the game entirely was a bold decision, but cordoning off all threats to one separate context robs the experience of the tension and dread it should be built on. Capcom's Haunting Ground offers a more effective model, wherein the threats are constant and wandering, and the only combat is to momentarily fend off attackers, long enough to lure them to another part of the level and escape.

The story is also kind of meandering and squishy between cutscenes. All throughout the town you'll find tidbits of text and voice messages which describe... what? I guess isolated little side-stories that happened in these places which are just sort of supposed to be generally creepy (someone freezing to death in the woods, an implied date-rape, an anonymous highschooler asphyxiating himself with a belt,) but don't add up to much. They're reminiscent of the narrative bits found in the original Fatal Frame, but where those all added up to express the abandoned mansion's history of ritual sacrifice, these just sort of... are. Between these scattered tidbits and the dreamlike, shifting characterization of the people you meet, it's easy to assume that the story isn't really going anywhere. Until it does, at the very end. And it's a hell of a reveal. The striking convergence of multiple concepts in an unexpected way is top form, really. But you'd be forgiven up to this point for assuming the story's just going to peter out, since so much of it does end up being inconsequential filler. It's not the kind of narrative that grips you with surreal intrigue the way that Silent Hill 2 did, or the kind of ambient storytelling that conveys a cohesive picture of a place and the people that populated it as with Rapture in BioShock. It's halfway there in a way that makes everything between a few major anchor points feel meaningless, which seems a wasted opportunity.

The concept of the therapy sessions impacting the gameworld has a similar problem. Your answers to the therapist are supposed to change the game itself, creating a nightmare tailored just for you (as an opening "Psychology Warning" screen states.) I played through the game one-and-a-half times. On that second half-playthrough I chose the exact opposite responses as I'd given the first time to see what would be different. And the answer was... not very much. Why was the bear in the hunting lodge dead on the table the first time I played, and standing stuffed in the corner the second time? Because I said "I'd rather spend time with family than friends" in the therapy session? I don't know. Is going through the planetarium instead of the art room in the school actually a meaningful change? Why are the wording of the text and voice messages slightly different, but the meaning still the same? The implementation of this system seems to have too many vague points of input, with too subtle outcomes. Depending on your answers, some characters' appearances will change slightly, and some dialogue will change slightly. So what? It seems like the developers weren't truly committed to the concept: how about giving me big, binary choices in the therapy sessions ("Who do you think loved you more? Your mother, or your father?") and then have that present me with truly divergent content (I meet an entirely different character in the following chapter) if you're going to do it at all? The implementation in the game is a middleground that doesn't really accomplish much. If they couldn't afford to branch the game significantly based on your answers, I'd kind of rather the answers literally have no impact at all. The aesthetic power of being interviewed by the therapist would still be there, without teasing me into wanting to replay the game for no real difference in the experience.

I've spent a lot of time quibbling over elements of the game that are half- or mostly-there, because it's easier to pinpoint what was wrong than what was right. So to be clear, what's right does outweigh what's not-quite-right. The game gives you an exceptionally immersive sense of being there, conveyed by a strong presence in the world as expressed in your direct physical manipulation of doors and other objects, your constantly-roving flashlight, and your highly functional cell phone that allows you to call all sorts of numbers found in the world, as well as take photos, browse voice and text messages, and employ a working GPS map. The world is rendered convincingly, stuffed full of evidence of everyday life with that strange Silent Hill skew to it all. First-person perspective is used to great effect, often to make you feel claustrophobic and trapped, but also to better convey conversations with characters throughout the game. And the characters themselves are quite well-realized, both visually and in their dialogue and behavior: the creepy, overconfident psychologist, the no-nonsense cop, the friendly, playful prom queen all feel like truly different personalities that could nevertheless all coexist in the odd world of Silent Hill. Outstanding facial & character animations and believable dialogue give the sense of the presence of other actual humans, not cardboard "characters." The Nightmare sequences are legitimately frantic and terrifying; the closest analogue I can remember is fleeing desperately from Constantine's Manor in Thief: The Dark Project, which is the nearest I've ever been to experiencing an actual nightmare in a video game. High praise coming from me. And the ending packs a hell of a wallop, while leveling out into a touching and satisfying resolution (the ending I got, anyway.)

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does an enormous amount new and right, and masterfully uses the Wii's motion controls in ways that draw you deeper into the world. Its tone and content are worlds apart from most games you'll have played this year. Anyone who thinks that all that mainstream video games can do are adolescent power fantasies needs to play this game, to be reminded that there's a world of possibilities out there. It doesn't nail everything it attempts, or even everything that Silent Hill normally does well, but Shattered Memories is as exciting for what it does as for the potential that it implies. A reason to turn on your Wii again. Don't miss it.



The untying knot

I'm going to recommend you buy a video game today. The game is Saira by Nifflas. It's a knot that's made to be untied.

The nature of the untying knot is part of what makes some video games feel like a "waste of time:" that they are often ornate puzzle boxes, taking years to construct then hours to disassemble and discard. In a game like Saira (or other Metroid/Castlevania-style games) you start with no knowledge of the gameworld around you. As you spider out into all the nooks and crannies, you unlock new areas, eventually uncovering all the hidden rooms, all the important items, complete all the goals, and you're done. The knot that someone spent so long tying has been undone and lies there limply on the floor.

The predestination can be palpable-- it's so convenient, isn't it, how all the keys are on the correct sides of their locks? How all the clues are available before you reach the puzzle? Everything has been placed carefully, and you can be secure in knowing that it is possible to sweep away every barrier. This world has been constructed by an intelligent presence. To practically feel the designer leaning over your shoulder can be eerie. It can also make the experience feel oddly pointless: ah yes, this is a series of tests that someone created, for me to waste my time unraveling. I must go through all the motions everyone else has to go through to finish this exercise and move on. If you get to the point of "why bother," it's all over.

And so the job of the fiction, of the visuals, of the sound and music and all the presentation the puzzle comes wrapped in is to distract from the mechanical artificiality of the base interactions. The puzzle box has to be brilliantly crafted, but we must be made to forget that our actions in disassembling it are predestined-- that we are in fact volunteering to be manipulated by the designer. And on both fronts, Saira is wildly successful.

It's an indie production of surprising scope and depth: what you do is mostly run and jump around alien planets, solving puzzles using computer interfaces and collecting key items to fix a broken machine. The scope and depth come from the incredible imagination and attention to detail evident in every aspect of the experience.

Saira, a bold adventurer and freelance photographer (giving her something in common with Beyond Good & Evil's protagonist, Jade,) finds herself alone in the universe after a mysterious teleporter accident. In your quest to find someone, anyone, you'll explore more than a dozen different planets and satellites, each with its own unique aesthetic and set of challenges: some are idyllic and Earth-like with rolling grass hills, others covered in snow drifts or dotted by the ruins of a destroyed civilization; a derelict space station is riddled with steam jets and radioactive leaks, a planet with a toxic atmosphere challenges you to hurry between life-giving plants; the effect conveyed is of an astonishingly varied universe where each place has its own history and ecosystem.

As Saira, you'll become a master of any environment, running, climbing, leaping from rock to rock, and even occasionally flying to achieve your goals. There are some dangerous creatures, but there is no combat whatsoever: Saira's only abilities are athleticism, intelligence, and her trusty camera and PDA. Death is never a major setback, as checkpoints are placed liberally around the world, you never lose progress, and you can teleport back to your ship at any time. The goals and obstacles then are refreshingly inventive: not just the clever arrangements of rock formations and cave systems, but the cryptic clues scattered throughout the environments that you must photograph and use as guides. The different logic and timing puzzles take the forms of everything from a footrace to a multiple choice quiz to light computer programming and circuit design. Each world truly does have its own identity in visual aesthetic, spatial arrangement, and the logic of the manmade systems left behind by the universe's vanished civilizations.

The great success of this type of game-- and Saira is a great example of the genre-- is its ability to simultaneously draw you into both the raw cognitive connection-making of mentally mapping spaces and logically deconstructing puzzles, and the aesthetic allure of exploring new and unknown locales, discovering the flora and fauna and history of these strange and alien places, of receiving bit by bit the story of the protagonist and how she's come to be where and what she is. It's an experience that engages both the left and right sides of the brain in equal measure-- as Michael Abbott says, "Play Saira and see which side gets stimulated the most."

It's that sense of discovery, of freedom to explore as you want, of real ingenuity when you overcome a tough puzzle using your own wits, of achievement and completion as you unlock every last tricky little passageway, that makes Saira feel like a legitimately enriching, thoughtful, special experience, not just another waste of time.

And so I suggest you visit Nifflas' site and explore the strange, wonderful, challenging universe of Saira. I hope you'll get as much out of untying this knot as I did.

Illustration from the deviantart page of Saira's concept artist



Quick hits

Wherein I sling bullshit regarding a few game things, in brief segments.



In the most recent issue of Edge Magazine, Randy Smith's column addresses three approaches to dialogue with AI characters.

1. Natural Language Processing-- speaking to an AI as you would another person, and letting them reason out a response procedurally. He acknowledges that this requires non-existent technology for processing human speech into meaning and Turing test-passing AIs to synthesize that meaning and respond believably. In other words, not in our lifetimes.

2. Dialogue trees. We've all seen these, most often in traditional RPGs like Fallout or Planescape. You have a limited list of authored dialogue options, to which the AI replies with a limited list of authored responses. This is effective for what it is, but very transparent to the player.

3. Single-word query response. The system used in old Ultima games wherein the player could type in any single word they liked and test whether the AI "knew" anything about that (ie, whether a response had been authored for that query.) This allowed the player to feel out the possibility space more organically, but presumably leads to a lot of interactive dead ends ("I don't know anything about that" in response to all but the handful of recognized queries.)

Smith prefers the third option overall, and I think there have been examples of games that mix 2. and 3. fairly successfully: Sam & Max Hit the Road, for instance, presented dialogue topics as single icons, so you knew which topics were valid (no dead ends) but didn't know exactly what your character was going to say about it. As you encountered new concepts they were added to the icon list. Similar are Mass Effect or Chronicles of Riddick Escape from Butcher Bay, wherein the dialogue tree options are single words or short phrases-- you choose the gist of what you want the character to express, and the author takes over from there.

But in any case, I agree that some version of the classic dialogue tree is the best we've got, and that probably finding ways to make it feel more natural is our best bet in the short-term.

I think dialogue trees probably feel least natural in games where the player character is a pure cipher-- in which the character is as close to being "me" as possible. So in Fallout 3, for instance, it feels limiting because the tree doesn't contain all the options that "I" would want to say in that situation. Conversely, in Escape from Butcher Bay, Riddick is an established character with a strong personality. It feels more natural for the dialogue tree to only contain options that "he" would say. (Commander Shephard in Mass Effect is in similar territory.) So, one valid approach when considering a design with dialogue might be to give the player an established persona to inhabit ("I am Jim. It has been demonstrated that Jim is very timid. He would NEVER just walk up to the cute girl and ask for her number!") as opposed to a true blank slate. This might open up more interesting possibilities in the end than the cipher route, depending on the broader design ("I played in such a way that Jim became much more confident over time, and by the end had totally different dialogue options available for that same cute girl.")

Alternately, the stranger in a strange land could be useful. Maybe the player character is a recent immigrant and hardly speaks any of the native language. You can only talk to people who know some bit of your own language (hence why every person in the game isn't a dialogue target) and then can only communicate using rudimentary phrases, pointing, and gestures. It's a familiar real-world paradigm for any player, and could again open up interesting avenues of play involving indirect communication.

Or maybe the problem could be externalized more literally: the player character is the only human left alive in a world filled with robots, and those robots only understand specific inputs depending on their preprogrammed role.

In any case, taking the dialogue tree as a mechanical constraint, perhaps strides could be made by making our chosen fictional context less perilous for dialogue ("I'm whoever I want, talking to whomever I want") and instead couching our limited dialogue systems in situations that complement them. I do wish more games allowed you to converse with characters in the world, and I hope we'll see more player-driven dialogue going on in games outside the traditional RPG space.



Warning: this segment contains spoilers for a very minor subplot in the Grand Theft Auto 4 downloadable content, The Ballad of Gay Tony.

In The Ballad of Gay Tony (TBGT from here on) you play as Luis Lopez, an ex-con and current manager/business partner at a string of nightclubs in Liberty City. It's established early and often that Luis is a promiscuous guy and not interested in commitment to any one woman. When you check your email in the game, you find multiple messages from "Margot," a girl that hooked up with Luis in the past and who has developed an unhealthy obsession with him.

Partway into the campaign, if you drive to a small icon on the map, you can meet Margot. In a cutscene, she expresses her obsession with Luis, and he explains that he's not interested, and that he thinks she's crazy. It's comic relief, but it turns fairly dark when Margot reveals she's taken a whole bottle of pills as a cry for help. You drop her off at the hospital and complete the mission. Still played for laughs.

At another icon, you meet Margot again, this time on the third-floor walkway of a shopping center on the pier. She again expresses her obsession, and another funny exchange goes on between the two characters. Then she steps over the railing and says that if she jumps, everybody will think Luis did it. The scene stays in the black humor zone, until Margot jumps from the railing, falls three stories, cracks her head on a flight of stairs and dies.

This is pretty surprising and unexpected! And there was nothing you could do to prevent it (except not to visit that nondescript little side-mission icon.) Help text pops up onscreen: "Everybody thinks you pushed her! Get out of there!" Civilians in the area start yelling that you pushed her, that you're a murderer. And your only option is to run until you're out of the danger zone, at which point the mission completes successfully.

And while there are a LOT of things the player can do in Liberty City, the entire premise for this side-mission exposes the boundaries of interactions that are possible in a GTA game. For one, you have no control in a cutscene. I'd have loved the ability to talk Margot down, or to jump out and grab her hand and keep her from falling. But, alright, Luis is Luis, not me, and drama is often based on the viewer being unable to avert terrible events, so there you have it. But then you're forced to flee the scene of a suicide that you're the primary witness to. Even if you wanted to, there's no "stop and explain" button. If I didn't know it would've resulted in a failure state, I would've wanted to just turn myself into the police. The scene is begging for an entire sequence wherein Luis is explaining himself to the arresting officer under a hot interrogation light; wherein he's on the stand at trial-- does his testimony outweigh that of the other witnesses that day? What about the forensic evidence? Can the medical examiner prove she was or wasn't pushed? Was she in psychotherapy at the time? Hospital records show she was suicidal-- she was taken to the ER due to an overdose of pills not more than a week or two earlier, and it was you that dropped her off. Isn't that worth something? What will the jury say?

Of all the situations in GTA that result in police sirens, Margot's subplot seems the most defensible-- you didn't shoot a cop, you didn't blow up a plane, hell, for once you didn't do ANYthing. But GTA doesn't support the player being innocent. And so, in raising more questions than it's capable of answering, Margot's sad, surprising little story is an interactive bridge too far. But if it could be supported with mechanics... man, wouldn't that be exciting?


Loss of Progress

Challenge in games is a weird thing. Especially when I tend to find a lot of games too challenging to be fun, even on normal difficulty.

The thing is that the moment-to-moment challenge itself isn't the issue. I enjoy difficult problems and things that I actually have to try hard to figure out, or build skill to overcome. The problem is with loss of progress as punishment, and the drudgery of retrying the exact same sequence over and over again.

Recently, for instance, I've been playing Left 4 Dead 2 in singleplayer mode. Granted, this isn't the central focus of the game (that's co-op or versus.) But friends aren't often playing when I am, and I prefer not to play with random jokers. And I just enjoy singleplayer games-- I like having that time to myself, just me, the gameworld, and the experience. So I pick the Singleplayer menu option and away I go. And I can't clear a single campaign on normal difficulty.

It's not because any one part is too hard on its own. I wouldn't want the enemies to be wimpier or myself to be hardier, as the experience would feel pointless then. And though I do die too often, I think I could clear most chapters after a few retries. But the design of the game's systems actively discourages me from retrying by stealing away a criminal amount of progress if my character dies.

So, part one. Many co-op focused games are made significantly more punishing in singleplayer mode in that the AI is unable to revive you the way another player can. This is true of Left 4 Dead, it was true of Gears of War. Survivability of a multi-human party is increased due simply to the developers being unwilling or unable to account for AI partners reviving the player when killed (either by using defibrillator paddles or freeing them from a spawn closet.) When you're dead, you're dead. Sorry. So the single player is just that much more fragile, and backed up by AI characters that are generally less capable in some ways than a human player.

Part two: each chapter is probably 20 minutes long or more on average, meaning you can die at the end of a level and lose fully 20 minutes of your life. The level restarts in the saferoom and you're staring down 20 minutes of rote retread of the exact same environments and scripted sequences you already cleared, just to get back to the point where you failed. And if you fail again, you're back to square one in every regard. When the player fails in your game, you want them to instinctively feel the desire to jump up and try again. Saying "the last 20 minutes of your life have been erased. Do it over" does not engender this response.

So, mitigation. Maybe each chapter has a mid-mission checkpoint. Or, hell, I'm playing alone, let me save wherever I want. Or maybe when my party is wiped out, all four of us respawn in the saferoom without the level being reset: you're back to basic equipment, but all those hordes you cleared and scripted gates you opened are still in their completed state. It becomes a corpse run across empty ground instead of a full instance reset, which is much more palatable. There's a penalty, but the penalty isn't "do all that over again."

In many games, failing and restarting discrete challenges makes sense-- a racing game or fighting game or puzzle game, where each stage is micro and retryable in a few minutes, or even GTA4 wherein each mission is relatively short, generally has mid-mission saves, and lets the player instantly retry from the last checkpoint on failure via the cell phone. In games that have a more fluid sense of progression this is much less the case.

I don't mean to rag on L4D2 so hard. It's just my current example of a phenomenon I've completely outgrown: a game turning into a joyless then frustrating slog because of lost progress on failure. Even in the core action space, we live in a post-GTA-hospital, post-Vita-Chamber world. It should be as challenging as you want it to be to make material progress, but forcing me to go through the motions when I die, redoing challenges I've already proven I can overcome just to try again, shows an outright lack of respect for the player's valuable time.

It's not to say that loss of progress can't be available to the player as a challenge mechanic: BioShock has an option to turn off Vita-Chambers, and Rock Band offers No Fail Mode if that's what you're looking for. I love games with robust options menus. Let me turn "restart chapter on death" on or off to fit my own playstyle. Plenty of games disable achievements or unlockables when difficulty modifiers are applied; so be it.

Of course, these are pretty pedestrian observations about a fairly specific genre. What about unlimited time rewind? Prince of Persia Sands of Time only seemed to limit rewind as a form of challenge. Halo 3 seemingly saves the state of the game continuously, allowing you to revisit and fly around "footage" of your play session after the fact. Doesn't this imply that the design could reasonably allow for the player to choose to rewind only as far as they want to on failure? Braid supported this, opening up the game's challenge to be entirely based on the player's ability to reason out a solution to move forward, not to restart the level to retry that one tricky jump again, as you had to in the game it takes as its inspiration, Super Mario Bros.

And of course, zooming out further, what about games that have no explicit failure state, where reverting to an earlier state to retry a "challenge" is outside of the player's expectations entirely? Games like The Sims or Animal Crossing, where small failures or setbacks within the interactive frame are generally deemed acceptable by players, because they can always be undone through further play? I'd love to see more games unask the question of checkpoints, quicksaving and loss of progress by removing death and failure from the experience entirely, instead of searching for less abrasive ways to tell the player "you have failed."


Those turned out longer than I'd expected.



The middle child at peace

It's been close to two years now since I made a provocative wager on this blog. Most commenters at the time took me up on it. Recently, the underlying question seems to be on some people's minds.

Chris Hecker's recent IGDA keynote fretted about how video games might avoid ending up in the "cultural ghetto" along with comic books; Matt Burns wrote a piece, seemingly at least partly inspired by the keynote, on video games and cultural legitimacy. Harvey Smith (on twitter and facebook) took issue with games industry people for their tendency to denigrate the achievements of comics as a shorthand for highlighting video games' failings.

But the more I've thought about it, the more I wonder: what if this cultural ghetto isn't so bad after all?

There's danger in putting too much emphasis on an analogy. And while much is analogous between the history and state of video games and comics, people tend to get lost in the specifics, and wrapped up in the emotional investment they have in each medium. The point isn't to argue for the merits of either, but to recognize that most people just don't care.

And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge? And I start to wonder if it's not all just insecurity on our part. And if maybe we're not seeing the value and beauty of the space we're in because we're too busy looking over the fence at Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.

I'll reiterate that, despite my original argument's oversaturation of bile and dissatisfaction, I still stand behind the wager. Video games will not achieve the same cultural stature as film, television or the novel in our time. But I regret that everyone got too wrapped up in defending comics to note the more useful and relevant section of the argument: on investment versus passivity, and how video games' nature and inherent strength is also, in the quest for mass acceptance, their major weakness.

Passivity and disposability are the currency of popular media. Experientially, the value of film or television for most viewers is the ability to sit back, turn off, and consume. The most popular entertainment is the work that requires the least foreknowledge, the shortest attention span, that supplies the most instant gratification-- the entertainment that requires the lowest investment. This all translates to accessibility, which is the key to wide appeal: anyone-- ANYone-- can simply place themselves in front of the screen and watch. Great art may take mental investment to appreciate, but a film doesn't simply stop if you don't "get" it.
Hence, the potential audience for any kind of expression in that medium is near-infinite, all viewers being equal in the watching of the thing.

Whereas games require comparatively enormous individual investment. The chosen input device (and there are many) must be learned and become natural to use. The inputs for the individual game you're playing must then be mentally mapped to the input device. The rules of each individual game must then be learned and internalized. And then, while the entertainment experience is ongoing, each player is actively judged for their performance: did you make that jump? Did you hit that note? Did you kill your enemy? Did you clear that map? Video games are the only popular entertainment that you can actually fail at. And so many potential players ask, what's the point? Why do I care whether I'm good enough to be entertained? And games have lost them.

The other issues of technical requirements, exorbitant prices, embarrassing content, weak public image and such do contribute, but distract from the core of the issue: that interactivity is itself a barrier to entry. And games are interactivity. The human mind will never change so much as to favor our work on the whole over the allure of the passive. Video games present interactivity as a language with the potential to say great, meaningful, important, timeless things. And it's a language many people simply aren't interested to learn.

This leaves us, then, as something of a middle child. I'd wager that we already mean more to more people than comics do (and if we don't, who cares?) and that conversely we'll never be a behemoth to match truly passive media. And maybe this is the best of both worlds. An audience that, having crossed the barriers to entry, is by its nature more invested in our work; a public profile by which we have the means to occasionally reach into the mass consciousness, but which affords us the freedom to continue experimenting with subject, form, and style; an industry which is truly international; which is capable of producing both multi-million dollar blockbusters and single-creator labors of love (and releasing both on the same platform); which manages to be neither too big nor too small, and is the more vital, unique and exhilarating for it. We are a medium for us, and while there are more and more of us every day, we'll never be for everyone. In a way, it's liberating: freedom to make incredible things, without being everything to everyone. It's why I still stand behind my wager that we won't be the next film, books, or TV. But I no longer look at it in terms of the qualitative. It's simply true. And possibly reason for celebration.

The urge to outgrow what is already our little brother is only a sign of insecurity; the urge to overtake our big brother, to destroy and subsume passive media, is vanity. The assumption of inherent value--that to be the biggest, the most dominant, the one new medium of the century, is in fact desirable at all--is perhaps natural, but also seems a fairly limited interpretation of the media landscape and our own role in it. We should be proud if anything that we are marginalized for the very thing that makes us great; that we are not less than what the mass audience wants, but different. In acknowledging the strengths of the lot we occupy, we might strive to accomplish those
great, meaningful, important, timeless things within it, instead of looking always for a way out.

To be at peace with our identity as the middle child is to be comfortable in our skin, secure in our nature, and hopefully to one day fulfill our own potential, not anyone else's. We are what we are, and what we can be no one else can. If we make the most of it, we'll hopefully someday lose the urge to talk about ourselves in terms of what we aren't.

[This post continues in the comments below, wherein Chris Hecker helps me expand my thinking on the issue.]



Design of a decade

It's near the end of the decade, and everybody's making a list. Why not?

These aren't my favorites. If this were a list of my personal favorites, Fallout 3 would be number one, and Hitman: Blood Money would be number two. Metal Gear Solid 3 would be near the top as well.

Instead, here's my idea of 10 titles that defined the state of the art in game design in the 00's:

10 Ico. (Sept. 24, 2001) Fumito Ueda's first game took the puzzle-platforming of Prince of Persia or Out of This World into 3D the way Mario 64 did for action-platformers. It introduced an AI-controlled companion that the player developed a bond with entirely through mechanics and animation, as well as a cold, mysterious, wondrous, desolate fantasy world, all near-wordlessly and with absolute grace. Ico trumpets the possibilities for deep emotional resonance with person and place using only the means that games handle best: play and atmosphere.

9 Peggle. (Feb. 27, 2007) The ultimate development of the casual game explosion over the course of the 00's. It is everything that a casual game can be: skill-based but random, accessible but surprisingly complex, both turn-based and realtime, clever, fresh, instantly gratifying but rewarding to the devoted player. Like Tetris, it relies on mechanics only a video game can provide, as opposed to being a digital tabletop game-- physics are its lynchpin, but in a frame that any player immediately grasps. It's a sensation: Breakout meets Pachinko. It's a perfectly-constructed core loop that lends itself to endless variation. It's everywhere, and it deserves to be.

8 BioShock. (Aug. 21, 2007) It was an incredibly unlikely phenomenon in a number of ways: A revival of System Shock 2's FPS/RPG gameplay, set in a mid-century undersea city based on the Objectivist philosphy of Ayn Rand, populated by little girls that drink blood and their hulking, diving suit-wearing protectors. And it became a critical and popular hit. The storytelling was a triumph of economy, being all the more impactful for taking place almost entirely off-screen; the twist not only revealed unexpected aspects of the story's major players, but commented deftly on the role of the player of a video game; the open structure of the levels and the myriad combinations of abilities never took the player for granted; the city of Rapture near-instantly became one of the signature locations in the history of video games. In contrast to its peers, it demonstrated what else the FPS, and story in games, could be.

7 Portal. (Oct. 9, 2007) Above all, the design of Portal is incredibly economical. Built out from one central mechanic, the final product felt lean and focused, while the presence of GladOS-- a disembodied voice for most of the game-- gave it heart. The mechanic itself-- creating arbitrarily placed and spatially contiguous portals on walls, ceilings, and floors to solve puzzles-- was one of a kind, and its mind-bending possibilities were exploited to the utmost by the designers at Valve. Refusing to overstay its welcome, Portal introduced you to its mechanics, setting and antagonist all in step, saw them through to their logical conclusions, and provided the player resolution in a few scant hours. If only all games knew themselves so well.

6 Katamari Damacy. (Sept. 22, 2004) Keita Takahashi's interactive manifesto on play and whimsy came out of nowhere and floored us all. Using simple graphics in service of powers-of-ten gameplay, Katamari Damacy introduces us to a gonzo conception of modern life, and invites us to roll it all up and fire it into space. Mechanically unprecedented and immediately engrossing as pure play, the game worked equally well as an ambient commentary on the absurdity and disposability of consumer culture. The visceral sensation of growing from the size of a pea to the size of a city in the span of minutes is unmatched anywhere else; the game takes this constant outward expansion to its logical conclusion in a perfectly pitched end credit sequence. It's a brilliant, self-contained statement of intent and followthrough upon it; it is a creator's worldview expressed through atmosphere and interactivity.

5 Deus Ex. (Jun. 22, 2000) A love letter to player agency, in both mechanics and story; a paranoid fantasy about all those conspiracies being true after all; a meditation on the blurry line between man and machine, between progress and self-destruction. Equal parts George Orwell and William Gibson, the world of Deus Ex is one rife with conflict, and asks the player what kind of mediator they might be. In speech: straightforward, or deceitful? In action: loyal, or self-interested? In combat: all sound and fury, or silent interloper? Deus Ex trusted the player-- trusted them to build their abilities the way best suited to their personality, to help or hinder the people they encountered as they saw fit, to explore the gameworld and draw their own conclusions. Deus Ex is, above all, an experience defined by the player, and ably provides a gameworld begging for the player to define it.

4 Animal Crossing. (Sept. 15, 2002) This disc does not contain a game, but a place. Playing off of our natural alignment with time and season, Animal Crossing makes itself real by matching what you see on screen to what you see out your window. In the morning the sun rises and animals get up to start their day; at night the shops close and everyone goes to bed. This isn't only the game's clock-- it matches the clock of the real world, a little autonomous town puttering by in time with our own. In this way, it presaged the current trend of low-pressure, near-ambient games that have gained popularity on social networking sites, while providing a much fuller experience when you did decide to spend a few minutes (or hours) in town. It also bucked the standard of high-pressure video game pacing, implicitly encouraging players to relax, only play for a little while, and be patient: letters sent by post take days-- real days-- to be delivered. Insects go into hiding in the winter, and the player waits months-- real months-- for them to reemerge. A year in the life of Animal Crossing is a singular, rich experience, one that teaches moderation through practicality and that good things come to those who wait. It's an experience only a video game could provide-- a simulated, parallel other place, humming along almost perceptibly inside your Gamecube even when it's turned off, just waiting for you to visit, if you want.

3 Passage. (Dec. 13, 2007) The last few years have seen the rise of the indie game to greater prominence, and the one work that expresses the promise of this movement most clearly, succinctly, and affectingly is Jason Rohrer's Passage. It exploits the symbolic quality of Atari-era graphics towards a sharply-honed observation on youth, memory, companionship, and the emphemerality of life. It has no tutorial, but its mechanics aren't obfuscated-- movement is your only verb; that and perhaps taking the hand of another. The implications of these simple inputs say more in just a few minutes than do the reams of dialogue of a thousand big-budget console games. Passage is a deceptively simple, elegiac and touching meditation on our path through life that gains its power as you tease out its meaning through interaction. Along with Braid and Flower, Passage sits at the crest of a wave we're only just now seeing break the horizon. These games will likely define our next decade even more strongly than they did this one.

2 Grand Theft Auto 3. (Oct. 22, 2001) It's rare for a game to come along that creates a new genre unto itself; for the 90's it was Doom, and for the 00's it was Grand Theft Auto 3. The open-world, "sandbox" aesthetic exploded from this point forward, but what impresses most is how GTA drew from the past: while everybody else has spent the decade adding "RPG elements" to their games by way of stats, loot and leveling up, GTA brought the overarching RPG structure to the masses by stripping that all away. Think of it: what other game has a wide-open world for the player to explore, a cipher protagonist who who starts as a nobody and ends up turning the gameworld on its head, a series of questgivers that can be visited in an arbitrary order, optional side-quests that can be opted into for better money and equipment, and takes 40+ hours to complete? Ultima, maybe? Fallout? Baldur's Gate? The creators of GTA saw in traditional RPGs an incredibly compelling structure for play; the brilliance was in building a convincing, familiar, modern setting around it, and stripping out all the math and inventory screens. The delaying action became car chases and shootouts instead of turn-based battles and loot collecting; the fiction played off of its setting and mechanics by placing the player in an over-the-top vision of modern American life populated by sociopathic criminals and consumerism gone wrong. And from all this arose a new popular framework for game design based on player freedom, easily expanded upon with new settings and mechanical innovations, the same way so many had added onto the work of id a decade earlier. Has there been a truly new, game-changing epiphany following GTA3, as Half-Life was to Doom? Maybe, if only in the incredible immersiveness and relative gravity of Rockstar's own GTA4, which succeeded in making Liberty City that much more vibrant, alive and real (which perhaps casts GTA4 as Quake to GTA3's Doom... with a Half-Life moment still to come.) The existence of Liberty City, in its original and then next-gen form, may be the crowning technical and creative achievement of video games this decade. And amazingly, that's not even half of why GTA is so significant.

1 The Sims. (Feb. 4, 2000) But then, a true sandbox is nothing except four walls, some rolling sand, and the toys you choose to put in it. And while lighting the fire of a new genre is quite the achievement, doesn't creating an absolutely singular design-- one which is a genre unto itself and which practically no one has even attempted to match-- mean more than spawning a legion of imitators? The Sims, in all respects, stands alone. Will Wright dared to take the pieces of our daily lives and recast them as the toys in that sandbox, and in doing so, The Sims became a lens through which we reflected ourselves-- our visions of prosperity or squalor, of harmony or discord, of fancy or practicality; it let us play with the possibilities of the world we know, to faithfully replicate our own house, friends and family, or instead to imagine a world in which that's all completely different. Its underlying structure implies a simplified vision of the bootstrapping American dream, where anyone can start out in an empty lot with a few bucks in their pocket and end up being a celebrity or CEO. And it acknowledges the modern implications of that dream-- to end up with an ever-expanding house, filled to bursting with the most expensive furniture, appliances and knick-knacks you can find. It's a view of the allure and emptiness of consumerism through the most open, unfettered kind of play-- like SimCity, all that's defined by the designer is the bounds of the sandbox and the identities of the toys that can go in it; the rest is up to you. But the rules also result in an almost Tetris-like determinism: no matter how successful you are, you'll eventually run out of rungs on the career ladder, run out of tchotchkes to buy. And what are you left with? A big house filled with expensive things, and a life you're most likely bored of living. It's been said that Passage was "the first interactive memento mori." I'd have to disagree. While Liberty City is an amusing and wry parody, The Sims presented us with a concentrated abstraction of the comfort and futility of 21st century America, and let us realize that grim system entirely through our own means. It is play, self-expression, aesthetic, and message all rolled into one, and its overwhelming success-- selling millions upon millions of copies to the very demographic it depicts, and millions more expansions containing fresh junk for them to pretend to buy-- is the confirmation of its thesis. Will Wright intended The Sims to be a simulation of ourselves, and we proved him right. If great art is both a reflection of its society and is reflected in it, then it's hard to argue that The Sims is any less than the defining game of its era.


  • Where is World of Warcraft? Call of Duty? Halo?
These games had a huge impact on gamers, but their success was much more in refinement of existing designs and strong production values and usability than in achieving the kinds of design breakthroughs outlined above. WoW is Everquest shined to a blinding sheen, Halo is a standard PC FPS executed superbly for a home console, and so forth. This is the same reason I highlighted GTA3 instead of GTA4, or The Sims over The Sims 3; the latter are more refined but are not the original conception of the thing.

  • What about Shadow of the Colossus? Resident Evil 4? Metal Gear Solid 3?
Again, if this were a list of favorites, it would be different. Oh fuck it, here's my list of Personal Favorite Games of the 00's, written up hastily and with little forethought:

25 Kane & Lynch: Dead Men

24 Yakuza 2

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Metroid Prime

Far Cry 2

20 F.E.A.R.

19 No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way

18 Bully

Resident Evil 4

Deus Ex

15 BioShock

14 Grand Theft Auto 4

13 Super Mario Galaxy

12 God Hand

Shadow of the Colossus

10 Portal

Silent Hill 2

8 Ico

7 Dead Rising

6 Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

5 No More Heroes

4 Katamari Damacy

3 Animal Crossing

2 Hitman: Blood Money

1 Fallout 3

Thanks, and here's to next decade! See you on the other side!




As we age, we lose it: 0ur sense of constant wonderment, endless possibility, unfettered, carefree joy. Perhaps in rare moments we get it back. But it's not what we are anymore.

Why did we feel this way as children? The world was new and unknown-- we had no idea how it worked. We had no responsibilities to anyone else. We were new people in a new place.

Developers, academics and fans talk about the potential of video games: the potential for serious games to teach, the potential for independent games to be the 21st century's first new artform, the potential for mature games to rival film as a cultural force.

These may be potential meta-roles for interactive entertainment at large. But each individual video game holds its own potential: to turn back the clock of the player's psyche in a very real way. To reacquaint us experientially with the wonderment, joy, and endless possibility of youth. Each game is a new place for us to visit, and a new person for us to be.

Consider the experience of beginning a game you've never played before. The gameworld spreads out before you. Your role is undefined. You don't even know what the buttons do. The experience you've begun is nothing but potential-- you can only imagine what might happen next. It's as JP LeBreton describes:

Remember your first hour with Shadow of the Colossus, when you’d only fought maybe one of the beasts? The sparse loneliness of world seems to continue forever. What’s out there? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the limits? ... Other games have a story that stands out much more clearly from their gameplay dynamics. Even in these, there can be vectors that lead us to imagine – stories that are driven by mystery invite us to speculate, to dream up alternate possibilities – who is the G-Man? What happened to Rapture? We invite more of the game into our creative consciousness – we imagine.
As we dig into a new gameworld and begin to fill its boundaries with our understanding, we relive the experiences of youthful play. We explore unknown spaces as we did the woods behind our houses, or the vacant lots at the far ends of our neighborhoods. We hunt in hidden corners for treasures, and collect them in our pockets. We take up arms and best imaginary foes, as we once pantomimed in the tall grass. We make up rules to our own little games within the game, follow them, break them. We build new cities, new families, new civilizations out from our own heads. We become people better than ourselves-- we grow bigger, more powerful, more important in our imagined roles. We can defeat armies; we can save the world. We can be anyone and we can do anything. The skin matters little-- superhero, suburbanite, criminal, cartoon character. It's the participation in the experience, the sensation of exploring, collecting, dominating, creating, that matters.

These are sensations that no other mass entertainment can provide. Films, novels, comics give us glimpses into realities outside our own, but we are voyeurs. We lose ourselves in the exploits of others, we invest ourselves in their fates, we formulate our own interpretations, but we are not them. We approach the worlds of these static media with the same sort of wonder at first, but can only observe others' actions within their bounds. This lack of control creates drama. But it does not invite us to be new ourselves.

Maybe video games will be a new artform, a new tool for teaching, a new cultural tentpole. Maybe they won't. But they are regardless unique-- for being interactive, yes, but more specifically for the conduit which that interactivity provides, through which we may reawaken the faded sensations of youthful play in our adult lives. This is an incredible kind of restorative therapy, a unique and valuable service that video games provide for the time-battered psyches of their audience.

If adulthood familiarity with our own world leeches off wonderment and replaces it with cynicism, games offer us fresh worlds from which to derive the reinvigorating, electrifying wonder of the new. The saddest person is the world-weary, the seen-it-all, the joyless, the cynic. The imaginative, exploratory, carefree play of youth is what the cynic has forgotten. It's what video games provide.

We can give you back what you have lost.

This essay was inspired in part by Michael Chabon's elegy to the lost wilderness of childhood.



A predator

This morning I woke suddenly from a dream.

In the dream, I was playing a video game. The game took place on some sort of alien Serengeti. I played a predator, something like a lion-- I couldn't see my own form, as the game was in first person. I approached a group of prey animals standing in a clearing of yellow grass. They resembled giraffe or llama, sort of similar to the mucalosaurus from Zeno Clash, but smaller and with fur. They were scaled to various sizes-- adolescents to adults, I assumed.

Being a predator, I leapt forward and seized onto a fairly large one, biting at its flesh. It offered no real resistance, but within a few moments I began taking damage from the side. I turned from my prey to see a larger one of the creatures trying to fend me off. I realized that this creature must be my target's mother. I swiped at her, easily repelling the mother and sending the rest of the group scattering. They stood uncomfortably in a perimeter around me as I returned to my work.

I looked up to see the mother creature keeping its distance, as it was no match for me. It looked back at me and said sadly, "No, stop."

I dropped the game controller and recoiled, repulsed and disgusted by the scene I was in the midst of: as I tore at its child, the mother creature-- which I didn't expect to have the power of speech at all-- was reduced to pleading as it looked on helplessly. My predefined role as the player was that of a predator, but the unexpected repercussions of that role on these alien life forms hit me with a wave of shock, terror and remorse. That's when I woke up.

I wonder if it means anything.



Sorry the blog's been dark...

Attempting to ship game. Don't miss me too much.



The three R's

Game design is the act of serialized decision-making. And so, good game design is the process of making many decisions well. In the context of a fiction-based video game, I've found that three principles should be applied when considering each design decision you're presented with. Obviously the earlier, bigger decisions require much deeper consideration on these fronts than the later, micro decisions.


Restraint is the act of resisting the urge to throw in every idea you have simply because it sounds cool, awesome, or hilarious. Pop culture in-jokes, gratuitous violence and sexuality, and self-indulgent story content tend to benefit the designer before the player. Do you want to make an idea simply to make it ('I want to make it so you can blow dudes' heads off,' 'I want to make a chick with big boobs,' 'I want to make a Monty Python in-joke,') or does it objectively benefit the identity of the design? Lack of restraint is adolescent. Restraint is based on tastefulness. Restraint will save you time because it is a culling behavior. Restraint is your first line of defense against executing on bad ideas.


Rigor is applied through the act of objectively and deeply considering the practical implications of an idea. No design element is an island-- in fact, almost every design element is connected to every other by a complex web of dependencies. An idea that is not analyzed rigorously is destined to unstring that web, simply due to lack of consideration. Rigor is the act of questioning your idea unflinchingly from every angle, as this veteran programmer does for a couple of big ideas that sound good on the surface. Your job is to attack your design idea from all directions-- technical and gameplay systems in equal measure-- and find the holes in it before moving forward. Is your game engine capable of supporting this design element? Are any other design systems in conflict with this element? Any new idea must stand up to intense scrutiny before you move onto the implementation stage. This isn't to downplay the role of iteration-- even the most deeply examined idea will need to be iterated upon once you have it running. The intent is to root out those problems which would be "so obvious" once you got around to implementing the thing, and avoid spending time on an idea that is inherently untenable. As the old carpenter's aphorism goes: measure twice, cut once.


If Restraint questions the "what" of your idea, and Rigor questions the "how," then Rationale questions the "why." Does this idea fit into the broader experience-- the identity of the gameworld, the conceits of the fiction? What is your justification for this thing's existence? Many of the fictional conceits for established genre mechanics in BioShock are wonderful examples of clever Rationale: why are there heavy weapons and vending machines selling ammunition in an undersea utopia? Because this society fell into civil war between its inhabitants (motivating them to construct grenade launchers, crossbows, turrets, etc. from scavenged materials) and was hyper-capitalist (meaning that war profiteers were free to exploit the conflict by selling bullets to the combatants via convenient vending machines.) In other words, Rationale can be seen as coming up with "excuses" for mechanics' presence in your gameworld, but this is a two-way street: your fiction might reasonably imply mechanics (a game set on a desert island might 'want' a cooking mechanic) just as the mechanics of your chosen genre might require adjustments to your fiction. The question is whether you can wrap your idea in a clear, easily-graspable Rationale, or whether it will disrupt the player's experience, sticking out like a sore thumb (as a counterpoint from BioShock, the Bot Shut-Down Stations had this latter effect for me.) An idea without clear Rationale feels arbitrary, and threatens the integrity of the player's experience. Mechanics with clear Rationale have a unifying effect, helping the whole of the experience hang better together.

Hopefully the above three principles are clear, and can help you analyze a design idea in its early stages. The goal is to arrive at a lean, coherent design, wherein every element supports every other. The challenge is to be objective in your questioning, not to fall in love with any one design idea, and to pare down carefully but liberally until you arrive at the core experience you want to convey. Hopefully, embracing Restraint, Rigor and Rationale from the outset will better guarantee smooth sailing as your ideas make the leap from paper to playable.




There is a Goodwill outlet down Fillmore St. from my apartment. Being that this Goodwill is in the middle of San Francisco, there are sometimes exciting finds in the used software section. Most recently, I picked up an original boxed copy of SimCity (on 3.5" AND 5.25" floppy!) as a cheap collector's item-- the cover art is wonderful, one of my favorite video game box covers:

Inside, I found the following slip:

click for big

20 years ago, the makers of SimCity could reasonably solicit users to submit bugs and suggestions through the post, in exchange for "nifty prizes." (Don't forget to include your phone number in case we need more information!) Web forums have taken over this function, sure, but there's something incredibly nostalgic about picturing some computer game player (in, let's say, Minnesota, on a chilly November evening in 1990) sitting down at his kitchen table with a ballpoint pen and writing out his great ideas for how to improve SimCity, then walking out to the mailbox and sending the letter off in hopes of receiving a reply from the game's creators, and maybe a nifty prize.

Times have changed and cheap nostalgia is easy, but I don't think it's unfair to lament the personal feeling the games industry had to it at the turn of the 90's. The entire industry has gotten exponentially larger in the intervening years, and so the creators of the biggest games tend to be the furthest distanced from the average player, unsurprisingly. Certainly this is one draw of the indie games community-- that it feels like a community, with relatable individuals making small, personal games to share with their dedicated playerbase.

It's wonderful. But it doesn't diminish the fond memory of buying a box of disks from Babbage's or Egghead Software, taking it home, and feeling that you'd opened up a personal conduit to the creators of the thing you held in your hands. We may have entered the age of impersonality... or maybe we just need to restart the practice of packing in a signed letter with our street address on it.



games I'm looking forward to

I don't have any great, high-minded reason to be posting this, aside from feeling the urge to remind myself of the upcoming games I'm looking forward to, post-E3. I can't claim that this list is anything but mainstream, but it's at least plugged-in, and has helped me remember that there are a lot of exciting new titles just around the bend.

Most Anticipated overall:

The Last Guardian:

Viewing the original (leaked) trailer for the new game from Team Ico last month ended my mind and left my mouth hanging open. Every element of the game seems so perfectly conceptually balanced-- the platforming and friendly AI of Ico meets the epic creature scale of Shadow of the Colossus. The creature itself instantly captured my imagination-- a baby giant, a presence that at once feels innocent, friendly and clumsy in its youth, but dangerous and imposing in its stature-- and the spears and arrows dangling from its flesh imply a vulnerability that might cast the player as his occasional protector as well. The single technical and interactive challenge they've chosen-- a complex, friendly AI with the scale and interactivity to meaningfully impact the player's navigation of the gameworld-- is incredibly inspiring for me from both a designer's and player's perspective. I can't wait to befriend this strange, wonderous creature and see what new aspects of Team Ico's unique fictional world he'll help reveal. The one misgiving I have is a stealth element hinted at by the trailers. I have confidence in Team Ico in pretty much every regard, but their games also aren't perfect, and stealth is very easy to screw up in an extremely frustrating fashion. Regardless, the mere promise of this game should be enough to remind any designer of the potential for novel expression that big-budget game development holds.

Outright sequels:

Super Mario Galaxy 2:

The sequel to what I would have personally awarded Game of the Year in 2007 (even over BioShock and Portal!) has been announced. I was honestly surprised, as it hasn't been Nintendo's habit since Mario 64 to directly sequelize their flagship Mario titles. But more Galaxy, plus Yoshi, is nothing to sneeze at. Some games feature such great core premises that more content alone is draw enough to foster legitimate excitement, and Mario Galaxy is one of those games. Bring on more weird floating space orbs! And Yoshi.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle:

Being a huge fan of the ethos and execution of No More Heroes (and Killer7 before it, though to a lesser extent,) I was excited to hear that NMH was getting a sequel, as I'd never heard it performed especially well at market-- it was cited fairly often as "proof" that hardcore games were destined to fail on the Wii. But again, more original content set in Travis Touchdown's wild world of otaku, beam swords, hipster t-shirts and world-renowned assassins is more than enough for me. Bring it on!

Mafia 2:

The first Mafia game (by the former Illusion Softworks, now 2K Czech) was one of my favorite games of the early 2000's. I was especially impressed by the mature (not "M for Mature") story and characters, and the sober characterization of the gameworld itself: you had to live as a civilian in the city of Lost Heaven, as opposed to being a rocket-launcher-wielding immortal. The characters were human and believable, their arcs were compelling, and it all wrapped up in a satisfying and melancholy conclusion. I was especially impressed with how little the game's narrative pandered to a juvenile audience-- no ultraviolence or fantastical wish fulfillment, no reliance on "nerdy" tropes that even other notable story games of the time-- Half-Life, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Planescape Torment-- copped to. Not all games need to be so grounded, but Mafia impressed me with the degree to which it felt so ahead of its time in this respect. Mafia 2, due some 8 years after the original, promises a similarly deep fiction, with perhaps a greater emphasis on high-octane action and forgiveness of player misbehavior, along with an even richer, more absorbing, living gameworld. I can't wait to play the game that 2K Czech have been toiling over in those intervening years.

Mass Effect 2:

Another game where "more of the same, but better" is fine by me. I played through Mass Effect at its release and have felt the urge to replay it a number of times since, but I'm holding out for the sequel. As a normative nerd type, I'm excited to explore the Blade Runner-esque city of blackened highrises and flying cars depicted in the game's trailers, to meet new partymembers such as "the greatest assassin in the universe," and to carry over my character from the first game in classic RPG style. I look forward to returning to Bioware's Star Wars-meets-Star Trek universe and experiencing the sequel team's "darker, grittier" approach to the material.

Red Dead Redemption:

Reading McCarthy novels like Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses has made me want a game set in a more grim, grounded version of the rural west than those offered by, say, Neversoft's Gun or the original Red Dead Revolver, and Red Dead Redemption seems poised to deliver just that. Rockstar is clearly trending more intently toward "serious" takes on their subject matter (just look at GTA4's, and even more pointedly The Lost & Damned's, depressing view of Liberty City,) and the Capital Wasteland has sold me on the potential for exploring a huge, open no-man's land. Red Dead Redemption promises an unsettled plain dotted with fledgling frontier towns, trappers' camps and cavalry forts, and even "a complete ecology" wherein hawks snap up jackrabbits and coyotes descend upon NPC's campsites in the wild. I can't wait to explore Rockstar's vision of the American frontier.

Not sequels:

Little King's Story:

I was turned on to Little King's Story by Edge's review, which speaks more or less directly to me when it says: "Perhaps the game’s greatest achievement... is a constant focus on you, the player, delicately changing the world as your kingdom expands." Something of a (I'm guessing accidental) cross between Dungeon Keeper, Pikmin, and Civilization, the player controls the Little King, who runs around the gameworld throwing his subjects at obstacles in order to clear rocks and trees, gather resources, build towns and defeat enemy armies in his quest to oust all the other nefarious kings in the world, spreading the borders of his kingdom to the four corners of the map. The tone and style sound irreverently self-aware, and watching your territory expand is always satisfying. I expect it to be incredibly original, and the glowing reviews floating around only buoy my excitement to play it.


The breakout hit of E3 probably doesn't need much introduction at this point, but suffice it to say that one play session of the game produced a battle between a giant Kraken, Einstein, and God, all on the Nintendo DS. The player can type in any concept they can think of, and more often than not it's been created in pixel form by the game's developers, appears onscreen, and goes to work interacting with whatever else has been spawned. Einstein might eat cherries, be flammable, and apparently goes aggro on God. Stories told from E3 playtesters include spawning a time machine which transported the player back to the time of the dinosaurs, then spawning a meteor which caused all the dinosaurs to go extinct. Even Keyboard Cat was present. Sample puzzle objectives include reaching a star high up on a perch, or getting a beached whale back into the water. Do you go the simple route (for instance, spawning a ladder to climb up to the star) or do you spawn the most gonzo conceptual Rube Goldberg device you can imagine? As Crayon Physics Deluxe is to player-generated physics interactions, Scribblenauts is to conceptual emergence, and hot damn am I eager to see all of the insanity that's guaranteed to result.

Night Game:

I was entranced by the understated, lonesome atmosphere and simple, satisfying movement and collection mechanics of Knytt, and Night Game seems to retain these elements while adding 2D physics gameplay to the mix. You play as a self-actuated rolling stone, bouncing across an evocative silhouetted landscape. To what end? I'm not sure, but I'm interested to find out. And while I'll certainly miss Knytt's player avatar (what I referred to lovingly as the "stupid little cat,") I'm looking forward to spending more time rolling around Nifflas's singular, alien world.

New translations of old games:

Flower, Sun, Rain:

As noted above, I'm a fan of Suda's work that's been translated into English (including the overlooked Samurai Champloo tie-in game, which bore all the Suda hallmarks and was surprisingly good.) So of course I'm intrigued to play a translation of one of this PS1 games, being brought to DS this year. The story (as I understand it) involves a private eye arriving on a resort island along with the sentient, crime-solving AI contained in his briefcase. A murder mystery (maybe?) is afoot, and surreal occurences are guaranteed. An adventure in the point-and-click tradition through Suda's demented lens, with new touchscreen additions for the DS release. Sign me up.



Though the Policenauts fan translation has been in the works for some years now, they're currently "one bug til Beta," barrelling towards a releasable build... hopefully within the next year or two :-) I really enjoyed Kojima's Sega CD cyberpunk adventure Snatcher when I played it a few years ago, and Policenauts is the spiritual sequel: aping Lethal Weapon like Snatcher aped Blade Runner, set in a gritty near-future (and, interestingly, featuring the Metal Gear Solid universe's Meryl Silverburgh,) I'll be happy to point-and-click through some vintage Kojima nuttiness. The successful fan translation of Mother 3 gives me hope that this project might finally see the light of day. I've got my Ebayed copy of Policenauts for PS1 sitting right here, waiting.


Fallout: New Vegas:


Any spin-off or companion to Fallout 3, perhaps my overall favorite video game of all time, is sure to catch my attention. An all-new Fallout game (not DLC or expansion) by Obsidian Entertainment, a company founded by Interplay and Black Isle veterans, is certainly an interesting proposition. I have misgivings-- honestly I was disappointed with Fallout 2 compared to the original (including their gimmicky take on Reno,) and haven't been much impressed by the Fallout 3 DLC I've played so far-- but the potential is there.

Lost Planet 2:

I was reading the preview of Lost Planet 2 in this month's Edge magazine, and was surprised at how excellent it sounds. The focus on character customization in particular caught my eye-- the sequel is focused on four-player co-op in that strange, low-tech future-steampunk style shared by id's RAGE and certain anime (it makes me think of Iria that always seemed to be on the Sci-Fi Channel when I was in high school for some reason,) and allows each player to customize the appearance of their avatar's futuristically anachronistic wargear. Along with building your own anime supersoldier and blasting up enemies with your friends, there's co-op grapplehooking, which looks like a blast, and big, nasty co-op mech battles, which I'm totally onboard for. Hell, the trailer above opens with a rip of the Offworld Colonies zeppelin from Blade Runner, and I'm taking the nerd bait. On the other side, the first game didn't impress me much, and I'm skeptical of fighting more big weird insectoid monsters, which is never very interesting to me. The trailer does feature a good deal of soldier-shaped cannon fodder, but if the combat mechanics aren't well tuned or the campaign uninspiring, I could see getting tired of this bug-blaster real quick. But I'll play it long enough to cobble together a cool-looking cyber-steam-space marine at least. That's just how I am.

The Saboteur:

This open-city game of the WWII French Resistance shares a lot of mechanical overlap with one of my favorite game series of all time, the Hitman games: stealth (both view-cone and social,) costume changes, a third-person orbiting camera, and complex planning that can hilariously blow up in your face at the drop of a hat. Add in a beautifully-realized real-world setting, some Assassin's Creed-like parkour elements, car chases, and a game board that you gradually flip to your own side mission-by-mission (structurally reminiscent of Syndicate, maybe?) and it all ends up a pretty exciting package. Led up by Fallout and GTA veteran Tom French as lead designer, it even has an impressive personnel pedigree. The question is whether the full package adds up to more than the sum of its promising individual parts, which is yet to be seen... but I'm optimistic.


While I'm interested in Borderlands' new visual style and the FPS/RPG genre bent, I'll be honest: I'm a sucker for futuristic revolvers. The mix-and-match approach to generating near-infinite weapon variants means that I'll play this until I've found the ultimate-cool magnum revolver that eradicates enemies with a single round and looks amazing doing it. For me, the magnum is generally a highlight of games that feature it-- The Darkness, the Half-Life games, Fallout 3, Army of Two, Rainbow Six Vegas, even GTA: Vice City-- and the ability to roll my own nasty future-Mateba chambered with acid-tipped high-velocity rounds is pretty much irresistable. And get this-- you can even roll a sniper rifle that's constructed with a revolver's cylinder, meaning I'll be on a quest for the ultimate one of those, too. On the downside I usually am not big on the Diablo-style grind structure, so I don't know if this can really be one of my personal favorites in the long-term, but I am looking forward to playing it.

Red Steel 2:

Red Steel 2 is as much a series reboot as any: they've gone completely bonkers, it seems, pushing the setting to some strange, future-retro east-meets-west post-apocalyptic Japanese frontier town in the American neo-old-west (?) The game looks to roughly share a visual style with Borderlands, and I'm interested to find out more about their wacko shift in setting. If the gameplay is better than the first thanks to Wii Motion Plus, it could be great fun. On the downside, the levels look incredibly linear and sort of repetitive even in the 10-minute video showcase above, so I could see this wearing out its welcome quickly, but I'm intrigued by their extreme departure from the first game at least.

Infinite Space:


I'm kind of worried about this one, as it's fallen off the radar a bit: no showing at E3, Sega? But it's still scheduled for release sometime this year (or next?) and the initial promise has kept my interest: a Platinum Games-branded DS title (initially called "Infinite Line," now "Infinite Space,") conveying a grand space opera, with mechanics focusing on building your own fleet of battleships from myriad parts and stats, then engaging in epic confrontations between opposing armadas. It looks incredibly twiddly and deep, as much of a fleet simulator as anything, and reviews of the Japanese version, released earlier this year, have been quite positive. If it ever does make it to these shores, I'll be interested to try my hand at this uniquely Japanese take on the hardcore (handheld!) space sim.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories:


I'm on the Silent Hill 2 respect train, though I wasn't especially excited about any of the other games in the series. But I see potential in Climax Games' interesting re-imagining of the original Silent Hill as a combat-free, iced-over, player-tailored nightmare factory. The two big draws are a game where the player's only recourse against threats is to run like hell-- aim your flashlight with the Wiimote and use a PDA to scan your surroundings and take photos; look for clues to find your lost daughter; and when the town of Silent Hill flips to its alternate dimension of frost and ice, and a flayed horrorshow gets up in your grill, you turn tail and get the fuck out as quickly as possible. Vault over fences and skid around corners, then hide in a closet or under a bed if you can, hoping one of the ghouls won't sniff you out. It seems to be taking inspiration from the rest of the survival horror canon-- Fatal Frame and Haunting Ground come to mind-- but it doesn't stop there. By giving the player a psychological questionnaire at the outset and monitoring their playstyle along the way, the game attempts to tailor the experience to fit the particular player's profile, switching character alignments and setpieces on the fly. Dynamism and a unique mechanical aesthetic? I'm pretty excited... though Climax hasn't really proven itself yet with its prior time in the Silent Hil universe. I'm hoping this will be their time to shine.

Dead Rising 2:

More Dead Rising? Hell yes. No Frank West? And the game being developed by a fairly unknown studio that's mostly made baseball games in the past? Well... things are looking up regardless, if early trailers are anything to judge by. Starring what seems to be a stunt dirtbike rider from a Vegas extreme sports show, the player tears through a zombie-infested entertainment complex featuring casinos, theatres, restaurants, hotels, amusement park rides and more. Having apparently installed the duct tape mod, the player can tape chainsaws to either end of a mop handle for some Darth Maul action, or to the handles of his dirtbike to shred hordes of zombies while burning rubber. Could a new protagonist and new developer suck the soul out of Dead Rising? I'm worried that maybe so, but hopefully my worries will end up unfounded.

Theoretical/rumored games:

The next Hitman game:


As noted, the Hitman games, particularly Hitman: Blood Money, are some of my favorite games of all time. Blood Money may not be the most polished, technically flawless experience you'll ever have, but god damn if the possibilities and emergence it presented weren't endlessly entertaining. The end cutscene of Blood Money (which I've been half a dozen times now) promises more adventures for Agent 47, and I feel like I've heard "Hitman 5" bandied about by Eidos once or twice, but details are nonexistent yet. Like the "outright sequels" above, I'd happily take nothing more than additional levels for Blood Money-- the sooner the better!

The new Syndicate game from Starbreeze:


So there's supposed to be a new Syndicate game in the works. And it's supposed to be made by the team behind Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. And now you've pretty much described my dream game. Syndicate is one of my all-time favorite titles, having delivered a dark, violent, emergent open-city experience to my IBM-compatible some 8 years before GTA3. The tone of the property fits perfectly with the grim, gritty aesthetic demonstrated by Starbreeze's games, and the time is ripe for a rebirth of this seminal M-rated IP. Would Starbreeze take a more classic, squad-based approach? Or might you control some sort of lone saboteur skulking in the shadows of Eurocorp? Whatever it is, I certainly hope the rumors of this production turn out to be true, and can't wait for an official unveiling.

ThatGameCompany's next game


Flower made me a believer in ThatGameCompany. Now they've got Robin Hunicke onboard as well. What will their third game for Sony be? Following the rousingly understated triumph of Flower, I'm as interested as anybody in finding out.

Xeno Clash sequel


I'm rooting for ACE Team-- Xeno Clash was born of an earlier project called Zenozoik, a first-person open-world RPG set in a fantastically surreal world. But the featureset was too unwieldy and they put the project on hold, focusing it down to the linear first-person brawling of Zeno Clash as a proving ground. Now that that title has been released on PC to great acclaim, and ACE Team is in negotiations for an XBLA port, they're planning to revisit the enormous scope of Zenozoik as a "sequel" to Zeno Clash. Sure it could easily buckle under its own weight, but the sharp design sense and pragmatism shown by the team through Zeno Clash makes me hopeful that they'll pull it off... and I'll sure as hell be along for another mind-twisting ride through the heads of the three brothers Bordeu.

2K Boston's next game


You'd think I might have an inside line on 2K Boston's next project. You'd be wrong. Like everyone else, I'm incredibly curious to find out more about this ambitious new project that Ken Levine has hinted at. I was a fan of BioShock, of course, before I started working on BioShock 2, and a fan of System Shock 2 and Freedom Force and Swat 4 before that. So naturally I can't wait for the next project that the team in Boston's got brewing. Viva Irrational!

Well, enough of that. The great thing about all this is that I know I've skipped a bunch of games that I'm not personally psyched on, but that plenty of other people are excited for. No matter what kind of gamer you are there's something thrilling waiting just around the corner. When your head's wrapped up in the development of one particular game all day, it's useful to get a concrete reminder of all the amazing stuff that's being worked on by other teams out there. Good luck to all the folks working hard to get these titles onto the shelves!