The closed loop

"Humanity, loss, race, friendship, acceptance - heavy topics for any medium, and especially difficult for videogames. After finishing Minerva's Den, these are the things I'm contemplating regardless."
-from Arthur Gies' review on IGN.com

So, a couple of weeks ago, Minerva's Den, the story-based DLC for BioShock 2, was made available on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. This gives me some stuff to talk about.

Firstly, the response has been quite positive, for which I am very grateful. We're up there near the top of the highest rated add-ons on Xbox Live, and last I checked we had 200+ reviews on PSN with an average user rating of 4.96 stars out of 5. Can't really ask for more than that.

It's encouraging because, as DLC, we were a small team without a ton of resources. I'm insanely proud of what our team accomplished, and I think our success was based on having scoped the project appropriately for the amount of time and personnel we had. The story in particular was designed to be told as economically as possible from the ground up, and yet we seem to have connected with people despite a lack of flash.

The ending seems to garner the most attention on this front, even though the reveal is two stillframes on a monitor screen and a couple of voice clips, and the denouement which many people have called very emotional is nothing but some empty rooms and an audio diary, followed by a narrated 4-frame slideshow.

The key, I think, is in trying to tell a personal story-- something that followed the arc of an individual's life, and illustrated his getting through a particular trauma. The specifics are very sci-fi, but the core themes of loss and longing are intended to be universal. I think that on some basic human level it's very easy to put oneself in Porter's shoes, and so the impact of his plight comes across intuitively.

Race is one issue in the DLC that, while touched on very lightly in the actual content, has been brought up frequently in the reviews and other responses I've seen online as a central component of the experience. The guide character is a black man: Charles Milton Porter, a groundbreaking computer scientist. His race is only mentioned once, in the audio diary "How to Get Ahead," and otherwise goes unaddressed. I think it's the kind of thing where the issue of race hangs over the experience implicitly, and that one single point of acknowledgment carries with it much broader implications that were already in the player's mind. I found the response on this point interesting, anyway, largely because I never thought of that diary as being a big deal when I wrote it, so it made me take pause and try to analyze just why it's struck a chord.

As a side note, I've been monitoring responses to the DLC by searching for keywords on Twitter and Facebook, and it's been interesting for me to see the relatively high representation of female players posting their thoughts on Minerva's Den. Rachel suggests that this might be attributable in part to female users having a greater tendency to post on social networking sites in general. Nonetheless, it's nice to see a relatively high volume of responses from players who don't precisely fit the typical FPS-playing demographic. One likes to think that they've made something that can be relevant to people who aren't exactly like themselves.

In any case, I want to take this opportunity once again to thank the immensely talented team that poured so much hard work into making Minerva's Den a reality, and to thank everyone that's taken the time to play it. This is the first project that I've led, and as writer and lead designer, it's kind of my baby; it means so much to me to know that people are enjoying the experience of playing through the thing. I should also thank Zak McClendon, Jordan Thomas, and the rest of the management at 2K Marin for giving me and my team this great opportunity. Check out the Secrets of Minerva's Den on the Cult of Rapture to see who else worked full-time making great content for the DLC (as well as finding out about some obscure Easter eggs and in-jokes.)

Finally, you might have (though almost certainly haven't) noticed a slight change to the blog: the daruma in the header image, one-eyed for so many years, has finally earned his second pupil. Okay, so it's a crappy clonebrush job in the header image, but his real-life counterpart, which I've had since college, also has depth perception now.

In a lot of ways, this kind of closes the loop on this blog: Fullbright began in 2006 as a progress journal for the very first amateur FPS levels I made, right out of college; it was aspirational, meant to keep me honest and encourage me to keep working toward my dream. In the interim I banged the drum about games being smaller, shorter, more digestible experiences; telling more personal stories at an individual scale; of maintaining a focus on fidelity and immersion despite a more modest overall scope and team size. And now I've managed to lead Minerva's Den, a product which arguably upholds all of the above values.

DLC benefits from the stable base of a AAA game to build on top of, and the strong support framework of a full-size AAA studio to keep the production running smoothly, while allowing a small sub-team to follow its own creativity, making a new experience within the possibility space of the main game's premise. I feel highly privileged to have been involved in an enterprise like this in the capacity I was able, and I feel that by and large the results speak for themselves.

And that's just it. Maybe this entire blog has been one very long, indirect way of expressing a desire to make work that can speak for itself, finally rendering this little internet soapbox obsolete. Maybe that time has come.

Thank you all so much for reading this blog and contributing to my thinking on video games and game design. You've all made me more able to do the kind of work I've always wanted to do. For that I will be forever grateful.

Thanks for playing.




The Thinker Knows

BioShock 2: Minerva's Den will be released for Xbox 360 and PS3 on August 31! 800 MS points, $9.99 on PSN. Below is a trailer we put together to herald the launch. I'm really happy with how it turned out, and I hope you'll find it intriguing as well.

That Minerva's Den poster at the end is the handiwork of the immensely talented Karla Zimonja, my assistant director on the project, and Devin St. Clair, our lead artist. It sure would make a nice desktop image, wouldn't it? Well, sure!

click for big

Alright! Look for Minerva's Den on your console of choice soon! Can't wait to hear what you think!



Minerva's Den

It's officially announced! The upcoming story DLC for BioShock 2 is called Minerva's Den-- a new part of Rapture with its own story, featuring a cast of new characters plus a few familiar faces.

I was writer and Lead Designer on the project (as well as designing the first level myself...) and while I can't say much more about it yet, I can say that I'm extremely proud of what our team accomplished. Lots of new stuff is packed in there for one DLC! New levels, new story, new weapon, new Plasmid, new enemy and bot variants, even a new type of Big Daddy!

It's funny: I guess this makes me some sort of specialist on expansion content. My first design job was on an expansion pack for FEAR, then I worked on a direct sequel, and now an expansion for that direct sequel. I look at it as a blessing, really: never underestimate the value of working on top of a stable base.

Anyway, I'm really excited for people to start exploring Minerva's Den. It's a little project, but one with a lot of heart, I feel. Look for more info soon.



On the old vs. the new

I think it's fair to question the motives behind striving for "immersion," sensory or otherwise. "To be immersed" shouldn't be an end unto itself; it's a means to achieving some specific mix of sensation, but what?

I think that, at its essence, traditional, sensory immersion imparts a feeling of wonder: wonder at being in a wholly different place and experiencing a context outside our everyday, to feel new in some way. It rekindles that feeling of endless possibility that surrounded us in childhood, which I feel is a very good thing indeed.

Big, expensive, sensorily-complete video games have spent decades pushing towards the sense of truly "being there" in a simulated space. The player is drawn into the fictional world, and is given the chance to exist there for some time before returning to our own. It gives us new places to visit, places that have never existed and that never will.

These experiences are most often solitary, shutting out the rest of our world so that we can exist wholly in the other. Is this isolating? Lonely? Escapist? Maybe it is, if too are the experiences of immersing one's self in a novel for hours, or sitting silent and still in a darkened movie theatre, or listening through a new album end-to-end, headphones on and eyes shut.

There is of course more than one way to achieve this sense of wonder. A new paradigm is emerging, one more connected, more plugged-in, more integrated into our own daily experience than the old model of immersing the player in a constructed world. Augmented reality games, driven by the explosion of smartphone adoption, point to a future where video games provide the wonder of the new and unexpected in a different way: by weaving fictional elements into our own world, infusing our everyday surroundings with the fantastical, teaching us to see our familiar world with new eyes. Your house, apartment, street, the nearby woods, populated now with fictional characters, mind-bending anomalies, cryptic glyphs-- all supported by your social network of friends and fellow players, experiencing these things together as a living community. A brave new world.

The question, I think, is whether these two paradigms inherently conflict with one another-- if one is ever set to supercede the other, leaving it a relic. The old paradigm may only be "old" inasmuch as it is universal, timeless: beyond being formally similar to nearly every form of popular entertainment in human history-- from staring into the flames as a story is told around the campfire, to the Greek theatre, to the novel, film, radio, television-- it also shares the key quality of the most vital examples of all the above forms: the ability to transport us to an entirely other realm of experience.

That is the difference between the two paradigms of immersion: one, the traditional, transports the player to another world; the other, newer paradigm, transports elements of otherness into our own. And so, while potentially powerful, the new paradigm cannot provide us with incredible, imagined places to explore. The city of Rapture could never have existed as augmented reality; the new paradigm cannot take us to Wonderland, only put the White Rabbit in our backyard. While it might be less of-the-moment, the old paradigm feels somehow that much more integral to the human condition.

And so when I see the traditional notion of immersion drawn along generational lines-- associated with Generation X, as the new paradigm is to Generation Y-- I can't help but feel it's short-sighted (perhaps a more accurate comparison would be Generation Y versus every prior generation.) The implication that the desire to immerse oneself in a new and unknown world is unhealthy, immature, self-destructive or even suicidal, feels reactionary and narrow: one need not assume that the urge to visit another world emerges from a desire to obliterate our own world or ourselves, to run as a coward from our real-world problems, our stresses and worries and all the grown-up stuff we deal with; perhaps, instead, we are running from just those things of which the new paradigm is built: endless chatter, meaningless noise, bombardment by ads and IMs and text messages. As opposed to being self-destructive, the desire to shut off the outside world might be meditative-- a respite; a temporary communion with a pure experience (and, indirectly, with its creators.)

This ability to transport the player to impossible worlds is what I love about video games, and it's what great art and entertainment has been achieving for thousands of years. It's also why I don't worry too much about the rise of Facebook and iPhone games turning these sorts of experiences into dinosaurs, rendering them obsolete and then extinct. As a species, we will always want to visit new places, born out of the imaginations of our most creative minds; we will always want to be immersed in worlds other than our own. Despite hailing from Generation Y, you'll have to call me old-fashioned: long live the old paradigm.



Specific Violence

How does one refer to this discussion? It's the one we have all the time, in the blogs and in the design pits-- the one about maturity, about meaning, gravity, the medium mattering. About how all we do is let players shoot each other in the face and how we could be so much more. The one about our potential and how we fall short and what we can do about it. The one about how we're a bunch of little boys who want to grow up but don't know how. That one.

It strikes me that we discuss these things in vague and airy terms, but we don't know what we're looking for. Maybe we know what we're not looking for-- "I want a game where you don't have to kill things all the time"-- or what accolades we desire-- "for games to be considered art"-- but we don't have the concrete, mid-scale examples of what trips us up, or exactly what we need to achieve. We're missing a measuring stick.

Hold that thought.

It bothers me that people demonize violence in video games as a concept. I understand that it's because violence is so wildly overused, and often so luridly fetishized, that the instinct of those of us immersed in the medium is to swing 180 degrees to the other side of the spectrum: no killing! no guns! no blood! But violence-- and I'm not trying to be apologist here-- is an integral element of drama through the ages. The question is in its application. Violence can and should be powerful; I argue that video games rob violence of its power by making it lightweight, pedestrian, throwaway, meaningless-- by making it de rigeur, the violence no longer matters: it is made mundane.

Again, put that one on the back burner.

The comics author Alison Bechdel focuses on feminist and queer issues in her work, and is perhaps most widely known outside of alt-comics fandom for establishing "The Bechdel Test" for film. The criteria are:

  1. The film has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
I assume that this test followed a number of protracted discussions among friends regarding film presenting a largely male perspective, and failing to treat female characters as legitimate individuals; that mainstream film tended to dehumanize women in them, and that only certain movies were tolerable, but what exactly was the dividing line? And so the Bechdel test was born.

All together now:

Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death of Shakespeare's Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)

And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.

The metric becomes a constraint on content: don't remove the violence-- remove the faceless masses of "enemies." If every character the player interacts with is a unique and specific individual, then any act of violence committed by the player is invested with some amount of meaning: individuals have families, homes, jobs, friends, and most importantly, relationships with other characters in the game. The player's act spiders out from the individual to those that surround them, even if that social web is for the most part only implied. There are no more broad swaths of generic violence, then; there are only discrete acts of specific violence, each of which has the potential to matter.

The metric becomes a constraint on scale: if the player is able to commit violent acts, and they may only visit violence upon individuals, then every character the player meets must be unique, and therefore the approach to making the game-- the scale of environments, the construction of the cast, what the player does-- must be considered differently from the ground up. The end product cannot be the same.

At that point, maybe violence in games starts to mean differently.


Notes and examples:

* This obviously shares some overlap with Warren Spector's theoretical "one city block" game. If a game took place entirely within one city block, then clearly every person in the game would be an individual with a face and name, and any violent act performed would instantly reverberate through the entire block (or have to be very carefully concealed.) Maybe this is an idea whose time has finally come.

* One extant example that takes a somewhat more abstract form would be Shadow of the Colossus. While they aren't human, there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game (no filler fodder to wade through between Colossi) and each has its own unique appearance, environment, and behaviors. When you kill one, you have killed the only one of its kind, and the act carries with it a sense of sorrow and regret. The killing is a transaction between the player and another individual; and so, the violence has meaning.

* SPOILER: Consider BioShock. At the climax of the story, Andrew Ryan is killed by the player. This follows the deaths of hundreds of Splicers, deranged freaks that attack the player on sight and are eradicated en masse ("it's the same guy!") And yet, despite the numbing effect that this shredding of fodder should have on the player, Andrew Ryan's death still means. And it means not because of the fact of the parentage twist, but because Andrew Ryan has been built up over the course of the game as an
individual, with an intellect and a history and a set of ideals. Such is the power of violence against the individual, that its ability to mean survives despite any devaluation of human life that precedes or follows it.

* Similarly, embracing fodder in film generally relegates the work to genre status, but not always: think kung fu films. Masses of foes fall to the heroes, and the works are considered niche and lightweight. Then along comes a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that wraps a compelling human melodrama around kung fu fighting at the height of its grace and theatricality, and it moves us as any great piece of human expression might. But it is the exception, not the rule. Alternately there is a whole genre of film-- the slasher film, like Friday the 13th or Saw-- that is composed of nothing but individual, named characters being killed, and these films are almost always dismissed as trash. The problem of course being that these individuals are introduced for no other purpose than to be killed in spectacular ways (and maybe to get naked.) Point being, removing fodder is no magic bullet.

* There are games now that are both character-based and have no generic fodder characters: games like The Sims, Animal Crossing, or most point-and-click adventure titles. Notably, they almost never feature any potential violent interaction at all (or if so, introduce more generic targets to the game for this express purpose: think of the bike duels in Full Throttle.) The mixing of the two seems to be largely taboo, possibly because it's really hard to support.

* A character doesn't have to be lavished with tons of backstory, a fully-fleshed-out family tree, or even a name to be a unique and specific individual: we might not know the name of the cop who's tortured and killed in Resevoir Dogs, or the men killed by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver, or the female Viet Cong killed at the end of Full Metal Jacket, but they are nonetheless individualized, and their deaths are meaningful in context. The specifics known about individuals are scalable, whereas fodder is only fodder.



Darks Days 2

Sorry the blog's been dark (again.) I'm consumed once more by getting something squared away at work. Hopefully sooner than later it'll be revealed publicly. Until then... maybe not a lot of blogging. Apologies, but with any luck, this will end up having been worth missing some blog posts for.



Extra Lives

"So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way that no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. ... I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough."
-Tom Bissell, from his book
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Read the book, then listen to Michael Abbott's most excellent interview with the author here.



Any questions?

I'm giving Formspring a try. I figured some interesting conversations might start. Feel free to send something my way and fill up the space between blogposts.



Quick Hits 2

Welcome to the second episode of Quick Hits, wherein I sling nonsense about a number of topics, with no real connective throughline. Bang! Starter pistol.

Fuck This Conversation

I'm just gonna say it: art. I didn't want to say it, I don't want to hear it ever again, but here we are.

Why don't I want to hear about it? I'm a veteran of that war. Anyone who went to art school is. We have PTSD from that endlessly repeated conversation. We have flashbacks, we get the shakes. The trigger: someone, anyone, asking, "what is art?"

It doesn't have to be up and stated outright. The trigger phrase is hidden within any number of statements. For instance, when a film critic with a Twitter account says that video games are not art, the natural followup becomes, "Well then... what is art?" And suddenly we're in some goddamn flourescent-lit student lounge, sitting on a nine-dollar couch across from a dude whose shirt is self-consciously spattered with daubs of encaustic, hip-to-hip with the girl who stamped each page of a copy of The Feminine Mystique with an ink print of her own labia, hearing the guy over our shoulder mention Duchamp for the sixth time this week, and it all just needs to stop right now.

I had a professor, Harrell Fletcher, who is better known as an artist than a teacher, and anyone who immerses themselves in both the art world and art education has certainly been through this conversation enough times to come out the other side. I appreciated his perspective, which was open and accepting while deftly dismissing the question entirely. I'm paraphrasing but, as I remember it: "Art is anything that someone claims to be art. It is then your job to determine for yourself whether you believe that thing is good or bad art."

This acknowledges a number of important aspects of the words in play here. For one, "art" has no concrete definition. Anything more specific than "something which someone has chosen to call art" can be challenged from any number of angles. Is art something that someone calling themselves an artist makes? No, because John Ford wouldn't call himself an artist or his films art, but Francois Truffaut would say they were. Is it something that someone creates to express feeling or emotion? No, let's look at Minimalism or Andy Warhol. So on and so forth. I can smell the nine-dollar burlap upholstery now.

But first and foremost, above all, the term "art" is not qualitative. There may be good art or bad art as the viewer determines it, but something being called simply "art" is not in and of itself either good or bad. It is at most a classification, like "food" or "animal," but it is a classification without any objective requirements, only subjective ones, which means the definition is specific to the individual. One is free to define what is or is not art for themselves if it helps them sleep at night, meaningless as it may be, but anyone who claims to be the arbiter of defining the term for others is absolutely bankrupt in their reasoning, much too enamored of their own opinion for it to be worth a damn, and should likely not be taken seriously in matters such as these.

The Mona Lisa is a painting. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie. Ico is a video game. And art is just a word.

My Favorite Albums of the 00's

1. The Glow Pt. 2 by The Microphones. Phil Elvrum passes through towns and countryside, under buzzing flourescents and the shadows of Mt. Eerie, and wonders to himself the big questions, about life, why we're here, what our role is, essentially, what it is to be alive. It all comes out as epic, strange and intimidating as it should: rattling acoustic guitars ask the questions, timid and indrawn; distortion and huge drums answer back big as the looming sky. Under it all, in the quiet places, the fog horns of a Pacific northwestern coastline echo, situating the album in the place that Elvrum lived it, grounding us in what was for me at the time I first listened, my new home-- a fresh, inviting place that was then still alien, and where I was asking myself a lot of the same big questions... just not as epically. Elvrum had that handled.

Companion piece: Advisory Committee by Mirah. The album was produced by Elvrum, but his signature is so strong on it that it's almost as much his as hers. Very different from The Microphones, but very much the same.

2. Knife Play by Xiu Xiu. Jamie Stewart is not a reserved guy, at least as evidenced by his music. With Knife Play, he wants to get personal right up front: a sticker on the cover before you even open the CD states: "When my mom died I listened to Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, the Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, Gamelan, 'Black Angels' and Cecil Taylor." It's a strategy to scare off as many of the undevoted as possible, which continues in the music: the first 30 seconds or so of Knife Play is some of the most discordant, atonal sound you're likely to hear this week. And then Stewart starts in with his airy, otherworldly voice, his lyrics about suicide, hermaphrodites, and HIV, his gongs and bells and whispers and yelps... and it all starts leveling out into something incredibly listenable and intriguing, while remaining dark and personal. Some people find Knife Play to be terribly depressing, but I don't feel that; I love the songs, I love the sound, and while the words are tough, I don't feel like this is a downer of a record; Knife Play is the sound of someone getting through it.

Companion piece: Fag Patrol by Xiu Xiu. Acoustic versions of a number of the songs from Knife Play and its followup, A Promise. Hearing these songs in their more compositionally-pure state strips away the artifice and shows what strong songwriting underlies them.

3. The Sunset Tree by Mountain Goats. John Darnielle had performed as Mountain Goats for a number of years prior to the release of The Sunset Tree, but it was the death of his stepfather that allowed the album to appear-- Darnielle had been abused by the man throughout his childhood, and had to wait until that presence was out of this world to address his experience directly. What results is a document of a young man growing up with the torment of physical abuse, and his escape from it through love and music. The album begins with an attempted suicide and ends with a death that provides closure and reflection; in between are scenes of youthful abandon set against harrowing violence and contemplations on shame and mortality, all fusing together into an image of a young Darnielle coping with hardship in ways that would define his music, and the rest of his life. The tenderness with which the final track sets down the memory of his stepfather, steps back and lets go is a heartbreaking relief.


Video games are objects that people use.

Look at the history of the video game industry: the number of users has gone up and up, and what has driven this climbing userbase? One might credit graphical fidelity, innovative new gameplay modes, online connectivity, and so forth; I might credit, above all, improvements in usability.

The obvious stuff here is what we normally apply the concept of usability to: interface, primarily. And this is important, but only one element. In video games, gameplay is usability.

I guess we should define usability here. I'm going to go with "the degree to which the user intuitively understands the function of the object, and is able to achieve the desired effect without frustration or confusion." If I look at a toaster, I should be able to to intuit where the toast goes, how to set the darkness of the toast, how to initiate the toasting process, and be able to achieve the desired results consistently.

Perhaps in a video game my desire is to progress forward through a linear sequence of challenges. In the 80's, I might have died at the end of a level containing multiple challenges, requiring me to return to the beginning of the level and repeat all of the challenges up to the one on which I died. This is frustrating and monotonous. If I die enough times, I lose all my lives and must start the entire game over. This will drive away most users.

In the 90's, I might have died at the end of the level, returning me to a mid-level checkpoint, requiring me to retry only the last couple of challenges in the sequence. I can die as many times as I want and simply return to the checkpoint in time. However, if I have to repeat this enough times, I still get frustrated with having to redo challenges I've proven I can pass, and many users will still be driven away.

In the 00's, I might have died at the end of a level and been returned in space, not time, to a respawn point, allowing me to keep all of my progress and collected items and requiring me to retry only the challenge that killed me. Many fewer users will now be driven away. If the challenge itself is too difficult, users unable to surmount it will check out, but this is due to the difficulty of the challenge itself, not to the difficulty of retrying the challenge, as in prior revisions.

The intended use of the object in this case is to "progress forward through challenges." As game mechanics have improved usability, the audience has grown due to more people being able to use the object as they intend.

And so artfulness, graphical fidelity, innovation, connectivity, while all attractive, are secondary to usability improvements in interface ("I want to get online and play against my best friend,") input ("I want to be able to shoot that enemy using these controller thumbsticks,") and progression ("I want to always know where I should go next.") These elements are concrete-- sets of rules and conditions that can be tested against real users, scientifically, and adjusted to accommodate the most fluid user experience. Improved usability, then, is the conduit through which the creativity of your game flows. The more usable the object, the more people will be able to connect with the unique aesthetic experience you're trying to convey. Usability is the aspect of games which must advance first, to allow the rest of the medium to flourish.

This has been Quick Hits. Thanks for playing.



State change as the key to emergent play

Here's something that I'd only recently considered concretely (or that I'd probably heard in one of Clint's talks years ago and forgotten), which is elementary yet worth restating:

The key to fostering emergent play is the introduction of meaningful state change into a game's sytems.

Consider a game with little emergent play in its combat encounters: your verbs are bullets and grenades, and so are the enemies'; battle lines are clear and enemies are aggressive toward the player; you attack the enemies until they're dead and move on.

Alternately, consider a game with highly emergent outcomes to combat encounters-- unsurprisingly, I'll use BioShock as my example. Your verbs are bullets and explosions, as well as abilities that can freeze, burn, or turn enemies against one another, or be deployed as traps; the spaces are open-ended and enemies roam around freely; environments contain hazards that the player can affect the states of such as pools of water and flammable oil spills.

Say the player encounters a neutral Houdini Splicer (a teleporter that throws fireballs) and a Leadhead Splicer (standard firearm enemy.) They might just shoot the Splicers on sight. But they might instead Enrage the Houdini, who starts throwing fireballs at the Leadhead, igniting a nearby oil puddle which spreads fire to an explosive barrel, which then explodes and kills them both at once. Well that was unexpected.

This outcome emerges from the range of possible state changes applicable to the pawns in the scene: the Houdini can be neutral or aggressive, and made aggressive toward other enemies by the player's Enrage ability; the Houdini's fireballs have imperfect accuracy and carry a fire stimulus, which can change the state of the oil puddle to "burning"; the fire from the oil puddle can spread to the explosive barrel, causing damage to all pawns in the area.

Emergent outcomes are arrived at when the player brings those outcomes about indirectly; the method that allows the player to cause indirect outcomes is state change, and furthermore state change that can propagate through the world. By introducing a single meaningful state change into the world, the player kicks off an unpredictable chain of causality from which a final outcome emerges.

A matrix of the different pawns in the world (bots, turrets, Splicers, Big Daddies, oil spills, water, etc.) their potential states (neutral, friendly, aggressive, burning, frozen, shocked, ragdolled,) and how they can be changed (hacking, Enrage, Incinerate!, Winter Blast, Cyclone Trap, electric tripwires, rocket spears) defines the map of potential emergent outcomes in the game's systems. Simply having a high number of verbs that do damage to enemies does not change the end result; fostering meaningful state change of pawns both by the player and propagated through the world enables the indirect inputs that result in emergent play.

The payoff is for the player to be surprised (Enrage -> ??? -> "Ha! Both of those guys blew up!") Surprise is valuable in all entertainment: plot twists, novel settings, shocking spectacle, dramatic turns of phrase-- all are meant to present us with something unexpected, something different from our normal experience that we couldn't have predicted if we'd tried. The key to humor is surprise-- if you expected the punchline of a joke, it wouldn't be funny; it's the key to drama-- if you saw the ending coming, you wouldn't be satisfied. Fostering emergent play encourages the player to be surprised when your mechanics crash into each other, and better, gives them the tools to surprise themselves.




I wanted to write a response to Jesse Schell's DICE talk, but David Sirlin said everything I wanted to say, better and more concisely than I would have. If you've watched or heard about the Schell talk on the future of game design, do read Sirlin's response. To picture the best game designers of the coming generation throwing their talents away on building false reward structures to manipulate people's behavior, as Schell encourages, makes me cringe, and Sirlin rightly voices why.



BioShock 2... seeeeeeecrets

I'm going to start with a little self-congratulatory bullshit, so brace for that or skip ahead.

Four years ago last month, I started this blog. At the time I was a temporary certification tester at Sony in San Mateo. In my off hours, I was just beginning to build my first amateur level in the F.E.A.R. editor-- this blog was originally intended as a progress journal, to keep me on track in building my level design portfolio. Between progress updates, I included some light commentary about games and game design. If you go back to the beginning, you can still see my F.E.A.R. grayboxes.

In the intervening four years, I've gone from a temp tester at Sony, to a full-time tester at a local game studio (the now-defunct Perpetual Entertainment,) to a rookie level designer on a standalone expansion pack (F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate by TimeGate Studios,) to a designer on one of the biggest game releases of 2010, BioShock 2. It's been a hell of a ride. I couldn't have imagined things working out this way if I'd tried. I feel incredibly proud of what the teams I've worked with have accomplished, incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunities I have by the gracious people who have employed and mentored me, and incredibly grateful to all the commenters and fellow bloggers for helping me think differently about game design.

So anyway, BioShock 2 is now upon us, and it includes a bunch of silly-ass secret crap and references by yours truly! Here they are!

I was the level designer for The Adonis Luxury Resort (the first level,) and Pauper's Drop (the fourth level.) The Drop was handed off to the talented Monte Martinez (level designer on the original Deus Ex, as well as DX2 and Thief 3) late in development so I could concentrate on the Adonis.

The Adonis

  • Gaynor Peaches can be found and snacked on throughout Rapture in BioShock 2. I didn't make this asset, or request it be made; I was surprised one day to find that our artists had included yours truly as one of the food items in the game. But I used it as a calling card to 'sign' a few scenes in the Adonis.

    I also got to write a bunch of the in-game guide entries, including all the entries describing food and drink. I used the description of Gaynor Peaches as an excuse to put words in Julie Langford's mouth (even though she doesn't appear elsewhere in the game,) specifically to make her talk about me. I always liked Langford.

  • In the sauna, you can find an audio diary by "Rachelle Jacques." This is a cheeky reference to my wonderful girlfriend of 10-plus years, Rachel Jacks. Rachelle has a husband named "Stephen" who sits around listening to radio serials while she swims laps at the Adonis; Rachel goes to the gym, I stay home and play video games. Art imitates life.

  • I was lucky enough to be the one to put the 0451 into our game. In the Looking Glass-derived "immersive sim" lineage of games, the first keycode is always 0451. System Shock, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, BioShock... and now BioShock 2. To keep things fresh, and perhaps to acknowledge the distance covered between the origins of the reference in 1994 to our game in 2010, Jordan had me reverse the order of the digits... so I had them placed on the opposite side of a glass window, re-reversing it to look like 0451.

  • Where's that Little Sister go at the end of the Big Sister introductory cutscene?? Does she just disappear?! No! If you look to your right as the fight starts, you'll find her escaping through a vent. Attention to detail, babies.

  • Cat-tleship Potemkin. If you look at the bottom of the stairs in the Big Sister fight room, you'll find an overturned baby carriage... with a cat inside. Somebody in Rapture was crazy about their cat! I dunno, I just found this funny. It's also the stupidest Battleship Potemkin reference you've ever seen.

  • The airplane tail from BioShock has come to rest on a ridge in the underwater section outside The Adonis.

Ryan Amusements

  • The first audio diary by Nina Carnegie refers to "Mrs. Englert's third grade class." Englert was a teacher I had, not for third grade, but in middle school, who also coached the Odyssey of the Mind program I participated in. My favorite teacher of my pre-collegiate schooling.

Pauper's Drop
  • The doorcode to the Fontaine Clinic in Pauper's Drop is a highly obfuscated reference to one of my favorite game series, the Hitman games. The door code is 0047 (Agent 47's code number,) and the name of the guy who recorded the audio diary pointing to the code is "Tobias Riefers"-- an alteration of "Tobias Rieper," the name that Agent 47 gives as a pseudonym in the mission "Traditions of the Trade" from the original Hitman game.

  • This audio diary contains another reference: Riefers says "they keep enough drugs in here to splice up a rhinoceros." This is a reference to the brief hoax by some clever forum-goer before much was known about the game, claiming to have gotten an advance copy of Game Informer in which BioShock 2 was revealed to contain soviet soldiers, dogs with brains that you could hack, a giant squid boss, and a spliced rhino.

  • The audio diary by Jackie Rodkins is a nod to Jake Rodkin, co-host of the Idle Thumbs podcast on which I sometimes appear.

  • The photo attached to the shotgun rack in the Fishbowl Diner is once again of my lovely girlfriend, Rachel. Immortalized!

Siren Alley
  • This is the first level where you can get the Handyman tonic; when you repair a bot with Handyman (or summon one with Security Command 2/3) it's given a random name. I input a bunch of these. Since you can control two bots at once, there are some interesting potential two-name bot combinations: Rachel & Steven, Andrew & Ryan, Tommy & Rebecca, Jordan & Thomas... And though you can't control three at once, there are Pinky, Blinky and Clyde, maintaining the BioShock tradition of working a really minor Pac-Man reference in somewhere, originally started in BioShock's Farmer's Market by our intrepid lead level designer, Jean-Paul LeBreton. (Another pair of bot names are Jean-Paul and Karla, a nod to JP and his wife. Karla made a bunch of the excellent posters and signs for BioShock 2.)

Inner Persephone
  • A number of the names of inmates that recorded audio diaries-- Mattson, Wilson, Thomas, etc.-- are from the BioShock 2 design team. I snuck those in.

  • Similarly, the mugshots found in the booking area are developers: myself, Jordan Thomas, Michael Kamper, Rinaldo Tjan, Rich Wilson, Hogarth de la Plante, and Ryan Mattson, if I remember correctly. I'm not responsible for orchestrating these, but there I am! Hi, mom!

So! There's a bunch of silly stuff you might not have noticed. Hope you like the game!



On pointlessness

If you've played through Mass Effect 2, you've met Thane. He's an assassin with morals: a stoic figure who only kills those that he believes are causing suffering to others. He has a deep belief in the old gods of his people's native religion; after completing each assignment, he retreats to his quarters for solemn meditation.

His characterization works well in the game; I found him to be the most interesting supporting character, anyway. It made me think, though: how much more interesting would an instance of "the assassin who prays after each assignment" be if it weren't a pre-baked, special case occurence? This is outside the expectations for Mass Effect obviously, but it got me thinking.

Consider a game in which a couple of elements exist: some method for being assigned assassination targets, and a church or altar at which characters are able to use the verb "pray." If both of these elements can be used by either the player or AI characters, the potential for self-expression and discovery are enormous: the player is able to roleplay the above "assassin who prays after each assignment" in a completely self-driven way, imbuing his avatar with a unique and specific character in the gameworld; alternately, the observant player could follow an AI to the mission assignment-dispensing element, observe them tracking down and killing their target, and then follow them to the church to see them pray. The discovery of this systemic characterization might be that much more memorable than encountering a pre-scripted story character.

For this sort general paradigm to be successful, a few things would have to be true about the gameworld:

  • A plethora of unique interactive objects such as the above altar/church would need to be present.
  • The majority of these objects would need to have absolutely no input into the game's central success mechanics.
  • The objects would need to be interactable by both the player and AI.
The first two points are required to make any potential chain of interactions unpredictable and personally meaningful. If there's a game with only assassination missions and a church, well, the potential combinations are not especially surprising. But as the number of mundane interactable objects rises into the dozens or hundreds, the potential for drawing meaning from performing one interaction after another increases as well.

Divorcing these expressive interactions from success-based systems is important, otherwise the player has a purely optimal reason to interact with them aside from expressivity. So if the player receives bonuses from a "Serenity" stat, and killing someone lowers that stat, but praying at the church raises it, then the designer is telling the player in a fairly straightforward way to pray after killing someone. This makes the chain of interaction less an autonomous player choice, and instead simply the most optimal reading of the game's numerical systems.

The third point is less essential, but preferable: if only the player can interact with the expressive elements in the world, their use feels less authentic, more special-case, more predestined in function. If only I can pray at the church, then this church has been put here for me to pray at, and I as the player am separated from the gameworld. But if an AI is able to perform the same actions I can, it confers not only the advantage of the above player integration into the gameworld, but hooks into discoverability: I can see someone walk into the church and kneel down to pray, which clues me in organically to the fact that this interaction is possible, without simply scrubbing the world for interactable objects.

Allowing NPCs and the player equal interactive access to these objects gives the designer the ability to script characters with specific cycles of expressive behavior: one could create an NPC named Thane (for instance,) then set him up so that he tended to take assassination missions, only accepted assignments for targets with certain traits ("criminal," "corrupt,") then always went straight to the church and prayed as soon as his assignment was completed.

Fostering this sort of "systemic characterization" would clearly require a lot of work in a game's development be put towards completely "pointless" interactions. This is already done with some frequency in certain aspects of mainstream games: for instance, visual avatar customization is completely pointless, but it's been acknowledged that many players see value in imprinting a specific appearance on their in-game cipher, and so the work is expended. Extending this kind of personalization into the interactivity of the gameworld, into not just how your avatar looks but who they are, seems that much more valuable. Broadly, it might help foster the feeling of a gameworld where "anything is possible," and the specific occurences played out or observed are authentic and unique expressions of that potential.

This entry was inspired in part by Alex Hutchinson's talk at GDC09.



An obligation

Here's the typical internal exchange:

When something terrible happens in the world; when people are sick, hungry and dying, uneducated, unjustly treated and suffering, doesn't it seem like if everybody turned their efforts to those causes, the world would be a better place?

Maybe. But then who would take out the trash? Sell us groceries? Keep the phone lines connected and the trains running on time?

And what would any of us do when we're tired, bored, need to escape from mundanity, need to relax after our hard work, need something less concrete to stimulate and rejuvenate our minds?

And so it's alright to dedicate your life to creating entertainment. You're not curing cancer and you're not passing laws and you're not even keeping the streets swept or the shelves stocked. But diversion is important to everyone. And somebody has to make it.

I think, then, that there's some obligation one has in creating entertainment that is meaningful and enriching in whatever way their chosen medium can be.

Video games by their nature rely on the input of the player to mean anything. The fact that you can fail at your entertainment is in some ways a barrier to entry for video games. But it's also the medium's defining characteristic, and our one inherent hook for engaging the player and making them important.

It's our opportunity to make the player think. Not to encourage or invite players to in the way that challenging music, art or film might, but to absolutely require demonstrable logical reasoning from our audience. To immerse them in a world and motivate their progress through it with the promise of constantly evolving core interactions and intriguing fiction, then require them to engage their powers of visualization, abstract thinking and mental mapping to proceed. It's good for the health of the player's brain. I think of that as being meaningful and enriching entertainment.

This kind of on-the-fly problem solving is accomplished by activity in the player's prefrontal cortex, employing fluid intelligence and working memory. One's fluid intelligence decreases over their lifespan, making them less able to formulate new ways of thinking. However, some scientific and military studies have shown that engaging in interactive mental exercises that require us to make these kinds of connections can slow the decline of fluid intelligence, essentially keeping our brains younger and healthier as we age. They're the kinds of mental challenges that video games can ably provide-- creating and maintaining logical connections between new and abstract concepts and spaces to overcome obstacles-- that might confer this benefit to players, along with their escapist fun.

Not all games work this way, certainly. As blockbuster, spectacle-focused rollercoaster games rise in popularity, we seem to see less of these sorts of challenge structures in gaming's mainstream. When the game I'm playing doesn't need me-- when I can sleepwalk through it, when I can tune out and let it wash over me, when it doesn't make me think-- an opportunity has been wasted. Our work can be more than an empty waste of time for our players. We can entertain them while engaging their minds in ways beneficial to their cognitive wellbeing. I think that there is practically an obligation to do so, if we're going to dedicate ourselves to creating interactive entertainment at all.