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I've been reading the just-released Byron Review, an independent research report commissioned by the UK government on the effects of violent media on children. The study was conducted by Dr. Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist and author of three books on child behavior - Byron is also a mother of two.
As I mentioned in a recent post on the forthcoming book Grand Theft Childhood, rigorous research on the effects of video games on children continues to dispel fears espoused by alarmists, while also suggesting some reasons for concern. Though wider in scope--it focuses on children's exposure to the internet as well as video games--The Byron Review reaches similar balanced conclusions and offers a series of sensible recommendations.
A few key excerpts taken directly from the report:
I'm struck by how Byron rejects the summary judgments and simplistic solutions proposed by politicians, religious figures and others who have placed themselves at the forefront of this issue. I admire her decision to place the needs of children at the center of her study, and I respect her insistence that we preserve "the right of children to take the risks that form an inherent part of their development," but also enable them to play games and explore the net "in a safe and informed way."
My brief summary doesn't begin to capture the full scope of this work. You can read the full report here or an executive summary here. You can also listen to Dr. Byron discuss her approach to the study in an audio interview with The Guardian (UK).
Patapon is a God game I can enjoy. For some reason, I've never been able to fully embrace games like Populous or Black & White - titles that cast me as an omnipotent figure intervening or forcing my will upon the world and its primitive dwellers. It can be fun to wield the "Hand of God," but I never seem to enjoy it for long.
Give me a set of drums and a coterie of one-eyed minions, however, and I'm happy to reign supreme as God of the Patapons, rallying my little warriors to victory and restoring their former glory. Much of this pleasure is derived from the pure charm of the game and the way its visual aesthetic meshes with its rhythm-based gameplay. Like its genre ancestor Parappa the Rapper , Patapon is a fun and accessible game featuring a stylized world perfectly suited to its playful spirit. N'Gai Croal's description gets it just right I think:
There's a mistaken belief that permeates much of the industry, which is that "realistic" graphics will enable videogames to break on through to truly mainstream audiences. But when we consider the success of Bejewelled, Peggle, Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Wii Sports, it's clearly not the case. As graphics technology improves, the exploration of non-photorealistic rendering techniques should go hand in hand with the quest for verisimilitude. Unfortunately, too many developers and publishers would rather focus on the latter, even on the PSP, a platform whose titles could use a complete design rethink...Just because it's roughly the power of a PS2 in a handheld doesn't mean that we should be playing PS2 games on the go.
And Patapon is very much a game "on the go." The more I play it, the more I appreciate how valuable this seemingly obvious design feature is to me. It's the Playstation *Portable* Why don't more PSP games (I'm omitting puzzle games here) take that into consideration in their overall design? I realize you can simply hit the suspend switch and resume later, but from purely a design point of view, this is an inelegant solution at best.
Patapon's missions last 5-10 minutes. Each is a perfectly self-contained and satisfying play experience. The game doesn't impose a complex narrative I'm bound to forget between sessions, nor does it require me to memorize a complex control system I'm equally bound to forget. In between missions I can fiddle around with my units and their equipment, or I can play a short musical minigame with a dancing tree. Each of these play units, as it were, provides me with focused bursts of rewarding and fun gameplay, perfect for gaming on the go.
I realize lots of people play their PSPs at home - and I can't wait to get my hands on God of War: Chains of Olympus - which obviates the need for true portable play. But for many of us who bought the system as a portable device, Patapon is a welcome lesson in excellence.
This essay is part of a series devoted to the future of the Legend of Zelda games. Please click here for more information.
What makes a Legend of Zelda game fun? What exists at the core of a Zelda game that keeps us playing? How can this core experience be preserved without stagnating? How much innovation is too much?
In the creative process, the decisions we make are often the consequence of the questions we ask. Asking the right questions - the ones that truly interrogate the fundamentals of the pursuit - can make all the difference.
An illustrative example can be found in the work of silent film pioneer Georges Méliès. In all his dozens of films he never once tracked the camera. Even in his classic "A Trip to the Moon" the famous shot of the space capsule plunging into the eye of the moon was shot by moving the entire moon apparatus toward the camera. He could have simply moved the camera, so why didn't he? Because it never occurred to him.
As Méliès explained later in his life, he had been a stage magician. In a theater we move objects on stage in relationship to a stationary audience, so that's what Méliès did on film. It never dawned on him to ask how the effect might be achieved differently with a camera.
I bring this up because it seems to me one of the great strengths of Shigeru Miyamoto's design philosophy is his uncanny ability to dig down to the nucleus of a game to understand its playful essence. Together with Eiji Aonuma, producer of the Zelda franchise since 2003, Miyamoto has been thinking hard about the Zelda "point of origin" and what makes Zelda Zelda:
Miyamoto: The most important thing is that the game director not lose sight of the point of origin, the reason they're creating the game they're creating. Every game starts off with some core element that you want to create and you want people to experience, but gradually a lot of times when people are creating games, things don't develop the way they expect them to, so to solve that problem, people gradually add new elements to make that game better. In doing that, you can end up going down this path where you've added all these different elements, and the game changes from what it was originally intended to be.
In his startlingly frank presentation at last year's GDC, Aonuma reflected on the Zelda series and concluded that by the end of Wind Waker the designers had essentially lost their way (from Gamasutra):
Although stylish, the game design was barely changed over previous Zelda games. In fact, Aonuma realized, the Zelda series as a whole had not seen any "really new ideas" since at least Ocarina of Time. Instead, he and other designers had simply stacked content on top of the familiar template, making the games all the more vertical and convoluted. The result was that gamers familiar with the series were growing bored, while the barrier to entry was getting no shallower.
So what exactly is the "core element" we are meant to "experience" in The Legend of Zelda series? Miyamoto's description is telling because he isolates two distinctive features: a design component (gameplay) and an experience (interactivity) that the series has relied on over the years. But the secret isn't one thing; rather, the so-called "core element" is actually a cocktail of many elements blended together.
The Legend of Zelda series features a matchless blend of interactive gameplay - framed within an exciting adventure narrative - combining action, exploration, puzzle-solving, combat, platforming, stealth, and a bit of role-playing. Add stellar controls, high production values, a delightful sense of whimsy, and a series-long fidelity to what my friend Corvus Elrod calls "the triumph of youthful innocence and delight over the cynical, power-mongering forces of adulthood" - and there you have The Legend of Zelda's "point of origin."
To conclude this series, I'll return to my original question: what is the future of Hyrule? I believe the next console Zelda game must reformulate the "Zelda cocktail" in ways that breathe new life into the series. Prepared for the pummeling I may receive from Zelda devotees, I offer a few suggestions - one big and the rest relatively small:
I believe the latest Zelda game, Phantom Hourglass for the DS - as well as recent comments by Aonuma - offer a beacon of hope for Zelda fans like me who wish for the series to evolve. While Phantom Hourglass doesn't exactly overhaul the standard series formula, its innovative control scheme is so perfectly integrated with gameplay that everything old feels new again. Throwing a boomerang, moving blocks, executing a spin attack - all the standard Zelda stuff - take on a smooth tactile feel, combined with a terrific visual style perfectly suited to the hardware. It's one of the best Zelda games ever made.
And it is very much Aonuma's game. Phantom Hourglass is the first Zelda game made outside the shadow of Miyamoto. He approved the final design, but according to numerous reports left the game entirely in Aonuma's hands from beginning to end. Given his comment quoted above and others made more recently, Aonuma may have something in mind for the next Zelda game that will make me very happy (from an interview with MTV's Stephen Totilo):
Aonuma thinks of saving the world, and what the fun way is to do that. "When I think about exploration and saving the world, if you do it alone it's so lonely. So if it's a game I'm involved in, there probably will be some allies in there." He wants Link to always have some friends to fight at his side.
Did somebody say co-op?
I've enjoyed this little reflective romp through Hyrule, and I hope you have too. I offer my observations and suggestions as a longtime fan, hopeful for a long and happy future for The Legend of Zelda series. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read the other two related essays here and here.
Here's to Zelda, with love.
Yesterday's New York Times ran a piece about the New York Public Library's “Game On @ the Library!” initiative. Part of a planned $1 billion expansion of the city-wide system, the exhibit illustrates the library's growing commitment to include games as part the library's standard collection:
The library first offered games at a single Midtown branch in 2006. Now the library system offers both organized play sessions and games for circulation at 18 branches across the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens operate their own separate, library systems.) The library now owns about 2,500 copies of 92 different games available for circulation in one-week intervals. Overdue fine: $1 a day.
While not groundbreaking--other libraries around the country have been doing this for years--it's exciting to see one of the largest public library systems and one of the leading research libraries in the world devote space and resources to video games in this way.
My interest in this story, however, is less about the library and more about the New York Times report itself. It appeared on the front page of the Arts section in Saturday's paper. (Don't worry, I'm not revisiting the "games as art" debate. As far as I'm concerned it's "game over" on that question. Games can be art. Let's move on).
Typically, video game stories appear in the Times' Technology section or on its "Bits" technology blog. Occasionally, such pieces appear in the Business section, but rarely do we find a dedicated story about video games--aside from the usual "Senior citizens playing Wii" or "Halo 3 phenomenon"--on the front page of the Arts section. Interestingly, the story is indexed on the Times website as "Technology," but trust me, it appears in print as "Arts."
Why does this matter? It matters because when the New York Times prints a thoughtful story about video games alongside pieces devoted to film, music, and art, it moves us one step closer to legitimizing video games in our culture. While a part of me hates that fact with all my being--who needs the Times to affirm the cultural relevance of video games anyway?!--I believe it's an important step.
I live in two very different worlds. One world is exemplified by this blog. I write about video games nearly every day, and I enjoy correspondence with gamers from all over the world. We speak a certain language, share certain affinities, and we take for granted the fact that a video game can speak to us in a variety of ways, in a language all its own.
The other world I live in is very different. My friends in this world still use the term "Nintendo" to refer to all video games - as in "My kids are playing Nintendo," when in fact they're playing Madden on the Xbox 360. In this world, my colleagues send me email and newspaper clippings of Times articles about the New York Public Library cataloging video games. These usually come to me accompanied by message titles like, "Thought you might find this interesting," and "You might be able to use this."
I'm grateful to my colleagues for thinking of me, but their real impact is to help me realize that when such stories are printed, video games have entered their radar, and they have taken a moment to consider them in a new light - one that has nothing to do with ESRB ratings or troubled teens in trenchcoats.
These friendly colleagues know that I need ammunition. This other world isn't yet equipped (or receptive in many cases) to accept video games as worthy of academic study or even serious consideration. Consequently, I spend a fair amount of time arguing my case for a place at the table, much like film scholars did a generation ago. The Brainy Gamer is essentially an effort to demonstrate what thoughtful conversation about video games looks like.
At this point, particularly in a liberal arts setting, there is no talk of academic departments or even curricula devoted to the study of video games or interactive media. My victories come when I can offer a seminar course on the history of the medium, or when I'm asked by a colleague to help a student writing a paper about the spiritual dimension of Ico. For a scholar devoted to video games, progress in this world is very, very slow. Time may be on my side, but day to day it can be difficult to feel anything shifting.
So, when the New York Times publishes a story about books, video games, and libraries on the front page of the Arts section, it matters to me. Quite a lot, actually.
photo from original New York Times story.
This essay is part of a series devoted to the future of the Legend of Zelda games. Please click here for more information.
In the Legend of Zelda series, three is a very magic number. The Triforce - a central unifying image - is a triangle comprised of three separate triangles, representing Power, Wisdom, and Courage. In each game, Link must find three items from three dungeons: Twilight Princess - three Spirit Gems; Ocarina of Time - three Spiritual Stones; A Link to the Past - three amulets; Phantom Hourglass - three pure metals; and in Wind Waker Link must rescue three spirits from three temples.
In Majorca's Mask the entire gameplay mechanic is centered around a repeated three-day cycle, during which Link can transform into three different species: a Deku scrub, a Zora, or a Goron. In Wind Waker Link must extract three Triforces from three main characters, after searching for three Goddesses' pearls and taking them to three Triangle Islands. To accomplish all this, Link can equip up to three items and play/conduct songs like Zelda's Lullaby or summon Epona by playing three-note tunes.
I could go on, but you get the point. By the way, you're reading the third paragraph of my essay. Just saying.
Of all these trios, the most important is the one comprising the three central characters of the series: Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf. Much of the narrative continuity in the series stems from the relationships and tensions that persist from game to game among these three figures. I believe the next Zelda game would do well to explore these characters more fully and exploit the rich history they have shared through previous titles.
Before proceeding with this argument any further, I fully understand that for many players the core Zelda gaming experience is not about characters - it's about dungeons. For these players, the characters and their stories may add color, but the real focus (and real genius) of the the Zelda series has always been about exploring clever, well-designed dungeons; solving puzzles and strategic challenges; overcoming enemies and defeating dungeon bosses. After all, the dungeon is where the action is. It's where you use the weapons you earn, and it's where your skill is tested. The story is basically window dressing...and isn't it essentially the same story every time anyway?
I believe it's possible--even necessary--for the next Zelda game to enhance its story and characters, but this needn't come at the expense of the core Zelda gameplay. In fact, I believe a sturdier narrative and richer characters could make the dungeons even more interesting, especially if the stakes for failure in the dungeons were higher than "game over" and return to the entrance. What if each failure meant one additional day of imprisonment for Zelda? What if uncanny success or quickly solving a puzzle meant one day less?
I can imagine a segment of the Zelda fan base growing frustrated by attaching too much story to gameplay. To me, they ought to go hand in hand, but I realize not everyone feels this way. I'm brainstorming here, but how about this: the player is given a choice very early in the game to enter one of two buildings: a temple or a museum. You can only choose one, and when your choice is made the other option disappears. In the temple you are drawn into a story and ultimately asked to accept a quest involving many other characters in a detailed narrative. If you accept it, you get a Zelda game that structurally resembles previous titles, but this time with a more complex RPG-like story.
If you choose instead to enter the museum, you will be given a map and asked to find your way to a destination (dungeon) you must explore to bring back certain artifacts. Success in each mission results in you receiving a new map with new exploration goals. In this version of the game you are essentially moving from dungeon to dungeon within a basic narrative structure, but without all the story and character interactions of the other version. All the dungeon fun without the Deku Tree whining! ;-) Zelda meets Tomb Raider? Maybe.
My intention here (perhaps ill-conceived) is to envision a new Zelda game that gives me what I want without forcing the "skip cutscene" player to climb over a lot of unwanted material standing between him and the game he wants to play. I frankly have no idea if this idea is good or even viable.
So how, then, to enrich the story and characters? Here are a few ideas I would love to see implemented in the next Zelda game:
And then there's Link. What to do with him? I believe the answer is nothing. Link is our conduit into the world of Hyrule. He is the solitary hero, the blank slate, the reincarnated hero upon whom we project ourselves and our hopes and dreams. I believe he must remain silent. If the world, and characters, and choices surrounding Link are more interesting, then Link will be more interesting too.
I realize I'm in choppy waters here. The Zelda games are immensely popular, and who am I to muck around with a formula that works? I'll discuss the tension between tradition and innovation in my next post and take a look at gameplay in the series. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.
This essay is part of a series devoted to the future of the Legend of Zelda games. Please click here for more information.
This post contains many embedded music samples, so I have set up a dedicated page that will enable you to load and listen to them faster.
Rescue Zelda, defeat Ganondorf, and save Hyrule. Across nine game systems over more than twenty years, this formula has served as the core narrative in The Legend of Zelda games, perhaps the most beloved series in video game history.
This year marks two Zelda milestones: the 10th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game many consider the greatest of all time; and the series has reached 50 million units in total worldwide sales.
So now may be an opportune time to pause and carefully assess the Legend of Zelda series, both where it's been and, more importantly, where it might go next. I propose to do just that in a series of posts that will consider key elements of the game--overall design structure, gameplay, interactivity, music, and narrative--and suggest ways these traditional components may be preserved, revised, or discontinued in future games.
As a confessed devotee of the Zelda games--okay, I'm probably teetering on the brink of fanboy--I believe the series has reached a critical and pivotal juncture in its development. Certain predictable aspects of the game need to change, in my view, in order to continue the game's long history of peerless design and vitality. A recalibration of the franchise's balance between core Zelda gameplay and innovation is necessary to maintain the game's liveliness and relevance to today's gamers.
I'm not suggesting we throw everything out and start from scratch, but as I'll propose in coming posts, some parts of the Zelda experience may have stagnated in recent years, and I believe it's possible to move the series forward while preserving its fundamental spirit - as Super Mario Galaxy proved so brilliantly.
I hope you will join me for this project and offer your suggestions and insights. We Zelda gamers can be a rather passionate bunch, and I welcome that enthusiasm into the discussion. We carp and we defend because we love, right? ;-) If I neglect a particular aspect of the Zelda games that you feel is important, I hope you will let me know that too. I can't wait to get started.
First on the docket: sound and music in the Zelda games. More tomorrow.
Long-time Brainy Gamer reader Ben Abraham has been thinking a lot about music in video games, particularly in first-person shooters. A 4th-year Bachelor of Music honours - I'm spelling it your way, Ben ;-) - candidate in Sydney, Australia, Ben's final thesis project is devoted to the use of music and sound in Halo 2. He humbly describes this effort as "POSSIBLY THE MOST IMPORTANT WORK ON VIDEOGAME MUSIC OF OUR TIMES!" [grin]
In particular, he is interested in how music communicates meaning to the player in ways that go beyond story and narrative:
I wish to...identify important salient features of the relationship between the music and other non-musical aspects of the game. For example, I wish to analyse specific levels of the game by using concepts such as ‘level flow’, ‘progression’ and ‘optimal paths or strategies’, in an attempt to uncover meaningful relationships to the music...
The most reduced and implicit form of feedback that the player receives from the game is information about the player’s state; either the player is still alive and can continue on ‘progressing’ through the game to its conclusion, or the player is dead and must try again. This information reveals inarticulate or tacit aspects of the game that the designers intentionally and unintentionally included in the game, and which I believe are a vital aspect of the ‘meaning’ created by the game.
The crux of the rationale for this approach is a belief that Halo 2 locates much of its created meaning (in a largely non-narrative sense) outside of traditional narrative structures and devices such as dialogue, narration and cinematic direction. In this way, I believe that I will see a parallel to meanings and ideas created by and revealed in the music.
Ben's serious and inquisitive approach to his project makes teachers like me burst into fits of happy dancing, even from half a world and a hemisphere away. He welcomes your thoughts and suggestions on his thesis, the full description of which can be found here. Check it out, offer some input, and get your name on the Acknowledgements page of his final submission.
Best of luck, Ben!
Spring approaches and brings with it the familiar sounds of baseball - the crack of the bat, the peanut vendor, and the drunk shouting obscenities at the slumping right fielder. Ah, you can't beat fun at the ol' ballpark.
That is, unless you're playing in the Brainy Gamer Fantasy Baseball League!
That's right, I'm forming a fantasy league for Brainy Gamer readers, and you're invited to join. Even if you've never tried fantasy baseball, you're welcome to jump in and manage your own team to World Series glory.
Here's what you need to know:
The live draft is scheduled for Saturday, March 29, at 9:00pm Eastern. If you're not online at that time, the system will automatically draft players for you based on projected outcomes of players this season. I recommend visiting ESPN's fantasy baseball site, where you can sign up and participate in a mock draft to see how this works. It's very easy and lots of fun.
ESPN requires you to sign up for a free account, and you can opt out of all additional correspondence from ESPN when you enroll. I apologize for the commercial nature of the service, but the free features provided--including a draft kit and live online scoring--are the best I've seen.
Want to join? Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm planning for an 8-10 team league, but I can make it bigger or smaller as needed. I'll get back to you with the invitation you'll need to join.
Let's play ball! :-)
My first teaching gig was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To supplement my meager income and keep up with my student loan payments, I occasionally took jobs shooting industrial films for a large local brewery. These in-house films typically promoted certain aspects of the company's operation for consumption by investors and shareholders. In other words, they were propaganda films with a specific self-promotional agenda. The company made them to project an image of itself in the best possible light.
On the day of my first shoot, I learned a revealing truth about how that business works. The producer who hired me insisted that the actors not wear any makeup. He also requested that I change my lighting setups to give everything a flatter, less "Hollywood" look. When I asked why, he replied that he didn't want the project to look slick or over-produced. "Where there's makeup, there's money," he told me, "and we don't want that. Make it look real." He wanted a professionally produced film that wouldn't invalidate itself by looking too professional.
I was reminded of this when I finally got around to taking a look at Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect, available for download on Xbox Live and originally aired on the Sci Fi Channel. On the surface, this program appears to be a Sci Fi Channel production, full of expert commentary from a variety of game journalists and Bioware representatives. It didn't take long, however, for the words of my old brewery boss to begin ringing in my ear: where there's makeup, there's money.
Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect is a 30-minute infomercial. Its purpose is to entice me to plunk down $60 and buy this game. With no labeling or other information to inform me that the program is purely promotional, the show purports to examine the game and its connections to the science fiction genre. Nowhere is it mentioned that Microsoft struck a deal with the Sci Fi Channel to promote Mass Effect in exchange for sponsoring free screenings of the Sci-Fi Channel's 2-hour movie Battlestar Galactica: Razor in movie theaters across the US.
30 minutes of televised hyperbole heaped upon Mass Effect may try my patience and strain my credulity, but it's probably not worth getting terribly worked about. We see this kind of programming on American television all the time, and I think (hope?) that we're all becoming more savvy about the real purpose of these kinds of shows. Television is about selling us stuff, and most of us get that. As a gamer, my real concern regarding the Mass Effect infomercial is with who's doing the selling.
Geoff Keighley (GameHead, Entertainment Weekly, others), Paul Semel (GamePro, GameSpy, EGM, others), Jessica Chobot (IGN), Joel Gourdin (X-Play), and Heather Campbell (Play Magazine) appear on the program with a comedian, an actor, a UFC light heavyweight champ, and various BioWare personnel - all singing in perfect harmony the praises of Mass Effect. Their comments are frequently underscored with scenes from the game intended to illustrate their points - with high key lighting, subtle camera tracking and underscored music adding a slick professional sheen to these "interviews."
The message delivered is unmistakable: Mass Effect is the greatest, most ambitious, most revolutionary must-buy game ever made.
Much has been written lately about the state of game journalism, or if such a thing even exists. I think it does, but like most apects of this medium, it's emerging, defining itself, and prone to growing pains. We ought to examine the impact of advertising and corporate pressures on the media outlets who claim to bring us objective reporting on games and the game industry. Unfortunately, this isn't always easy to do, as the Jeff Gerstmann case illustrates, when so much happens behind the scenes.
But the Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect case is a no-brainer. Keighley, Semel, Chobot, Gourdin, and Campbell should have known better. If we are expected to trust in their integrity as journalists--and I have read and admired Keighley and Semel's work--they and their colleagues must reject these kinds of shill gigs. They're unprofessional and, frankly, embarrassing.
Word to the wise: where there's makeup, there's money. Walk away from it.