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June 2008

Are we ready for Majestic now?

Majestic_2You only use 12% of your brain. Mind if we play with the rest? --EA Fact Sheet for Majestic

In July of 2001 EA released a game called Majestic, one of the first attempts to create what has since been labeled an ARG (alternate reality game).

Majestic was designed to blur the line between reality and fantasy by actively pursuing the player in real time with phone calls, email, faxes, and instant messages - all intended to draw the player deeper into its sci-fi conspiracy-theory narrative.

The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins. --EA promotion for Majestic

The game began brilliantly. Shortly after completing a tutorial and submitting your contact information, you are directed to the Majestic server to log in. You discover, however, that the server is down. This information is confirmed by an email message you receive directly from EA:


EA's website confirms they are working on the problem with apologies for the inconvenience. The "Portland Chronicle" reports that the building housing the developers has burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Soon you're receiving messages from two of the developers suggesting the fire was no accident, and before you know it the conspiracy chase is on, and you're plowing through real and fake websites gathering clues and solving puzzles.

Then, unfortunately, the wheels come off.

Bad voice acting, amateurish video sequences, and poor writing derail the experience, and what seemed like an inspired blend of adventure, role-playing, and puzzle game genres devolves into a B-movie only Art Bell could love. Perhaps if it had been sublimely bad - as in delightfully cheesy campy bad - it might have somehow worked; but one gets the distinct impression the folks at EA had other, more ambitious intentions for Majestic.

Majestic. It Plays You. --EA promotion for Majestic

Since Majestic, the ARG genre has evolved and produced other cross-media experiences designed to draw players into fictional worlds built to intersect with the real one. Sadly, many of the strongest and most coherent efforts in this direction have been purely promotional, e.g. I Love Bees (Halo 2) and The Art of the Heist (Audi). Taking nothing away from these experiences, I personally have a hard time sinking my teeth into a time-consuming suspension-of-disbelief game whose prime directive is to sell me something.

And at the risk of sounding like a big jerky elitist, I've peeked at some of the community-created ARGs, and, well, they have a long way to go.

I don't know about you, but I'm eager to immerse myself in a clever, well-designed ARG that leverages all the high bandwidth, social networked, persistently connected,  frequently updated, downloadable content possibilities available today. Spielberg wants to design games? Put him on a project like this with a few MMOG geniuses from Blizzard or some wizards from Valve. Heck, why not give EA another swing at it? Throw Spielberg into a team of Sims or Spore veterans and see what happens. Better yet, team him up with Neil Young (head of EA's new Blueprint studio and one of the original creators of Majestic), and maybe the second time will be the charm. If Spielberg (or anyone else for that matter) can render a vivid, believable fictional world and game scenario, the whole notion of "alternate reality" becomes infinitely more interesting to me.

Very few people played Majestic. Maybe we weren't ready for it. Maybe it simply wasn't good enough. Maybe the government conspiracy theme coupled with the release date (2 months prior to 9/11) was enough to kill it. Whatever the reason, I think we're ready for it now. I'd like to think developers are ready to build it now. In my little anything-is-possible blogger world, I realize that's very easy for me to say, but it seems to me we have better interconnectivity tools now than we had in 2001, and I believe many gamers are hungry for new and varied role-playing experiences that don't necessarily mimic standard RPG conventions.

A new and better Majestic? I'm ready.

The relationship factor

800pxbeyond_good_and_evil__jade_p_2 What draws us to characters and makes us care about them? What sustains that engagement and helps it grow deeper?

Video games - like their literature/film brethren (and sometimes not like them at all) - often present characters designed to elicit empathy or identification with their audience. Our willingness to make this imaginative leap can have a significant impact on the ways we experience a game. N'Gai Croal recently described a moment in GTA IV when the designers' presentation of the protagonist directly affected his gameplay and decision making:

...[T]he writers have given our mercurial protagonist a conscience, a fatigue with death and a desire to start afresh. Rockstar managed to convince me that Niko wouldn't do this—so I didn't.

Writers use many tools (tricks?) to create and define this connection between character and audience: backstory, voiceovers, flashbacks, etc., but none of these carry as much weight as the choices and actions a character pursues, especially those related to other characters. In other words, who a character claims to be and where he comes from can be important, but the protagonist's relationships with other characters often reveal the deepest truths.

(Spoilers aplenty to follow)

Michael Corleone's true nature is essentially defined by the decisions he makes regarding his closest friends and family. In many ways, his decision to kill Fredo is the pivotal moment of The Godfather 2. The full extent of Michael's journey (some would say his descent) is most clearly revealed here - painfully so when we recall the young man who once wanted no part of the family business. The final lingering shot of Michael at the end of the film enables us to take stock of the man and examine what we think and how we feel about him in light of this fateful decision. Brilliantly, Coppola inserts one scene in between this one and Fredo's death: a flashback of the family still intact, gathered around a table.

Decidedly more mediocre movies may illustrate the point more effectively. Robert's (Will Smith) relationship with his dog Sam in I Am Legend attaches us to the hero in ways the rest of the film fails to do. Chuck's (Tom Hanks) relationship with the Wilson volleyball in Cast Away helps sustain him (and hold our interest) as well as documenting his psychological survival. Both films amply illustrate that even stories with apparently solo heroes often rely heavily on relationships to help explain their characters and bond us to them.

Transition to video games here. :-)

All of this was brought on by recent gaming experiences that have provoked me to think about video game characters and why some are depicted more vividly than others. I mentioned a few days ago that I was re-playing Beyond Good & Evil, and I continue to be struck by my attachment to Jade. Part of this is clearly attributable to the fact that she's a terrific female protagonist in a medium with so few similar examples.

But the more I think about it, my affection for Jade has less to do with her personality per se than with her devotion to the orphans in her home and, especially, her warm and playful relationship with her Uncle Pey'j. We learn more about Jade via these connections than from any of the investigations or action sequences in the game. The crusty old Pey'j needs Jade to survive, and the fact that they both know this without ever speaking of it adds a subtle dimension to the story. As Pey'j says, "Maybe this old pig can't fly, but he's still got a bounce in his step."

In terms of pure emotional response, I can't think of a moment in any other game that has affected me more than when Jade hears Pey'j being attacked by the soldiers and races to rescue him. The game cuts between shots of Pey'j being brutally beaten and Jade running in slow motion, helplessly hearing him receive each blow, desperately trying to reach him and ultimately failing to do so. The game has successfully earned our empathetic response by this point, so the scene avoids feeling cheap or manipulative...unlike Sam's death in I Am Legend.

I've been thinking about other video game relationships as well: Link and Midna (Zelda: Twilight Princess); Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2); The Nameless One and Morte (Planescape: Torment); Jack and Andrew Ryan (Bioshock) - antagonists, co-adventurers, buddies, will-they-won't-they lovers?, etc.. I think my theory holds up in these cases too, although the natures of these relationships vary wildly. The silent protagonist, for example, may skew things a bit. And what about NPCs? Is this where the "Aeris made me cry" folks jump in?

Does any of this hold water? Do you have similar empathetic experiences with characters in different games? If so, or if not, I'd love to know.

This post is a contribution to Man Bytes Blog's Round Table, a monthly collection of posts revolving around the same topic. Click below to peruse other entries in this month's series.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time - review


My review of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time has been posted at PopMatters. Here's a snippet:

Over the years, Nintendo has managed to successfully leverage Pokémon‘s wide popularity by merging the franchise’s iconic aesthetic with other gameplay systems. Sometimes this has worked very well (Pokémon Puzzle League); other times, not so well (Pokémon Dash).

Explorers of Time and Explorers of Darkness continue this series of odd bedfellows by uniting the Pokémon universe with one of the oldest and most brutally difficult game genres, the roguelike. Developed by Chunsoft, makers of the Mystery Dungeon series for over 15 years, these games attempt to apply a bright, sparkly Pokémon coat of paint to a stout and unyielding gameplay mechanic that has frustrated and delighted gamers since the ASCII days of Rogue and Nethack.

Is it a happy marriage? You can read the full review here.

The jelly donut gamer

Metalgearbox_4 I've gone soft. Torpid. I'm a jelly donut gamer. How did this happen?

I got it into my head last night that I ought to give the original Metal Gear a try. Not the PS2 re-release with its optional "Easy" mode and unlockable "infinite bandana" providing unlimited ammo. No. And not the NES port that Kojima famously described as "complete garbage." Not that one either.

No, I loaded up the full-leaded original MSX2 version of Metal Gear - the English version released for the European market with most of the radio messages missing, including Big Boss' descriptions of all the items and weapons. The one, according to a fan-translation project, with only 56% of the original Japanese text translated into English.[1] Yeah. That one.

It's been 20 years since I first played Metal Gear, but I've been a fairly devoted fan of the series, so I didn't expect any problems getting back up to speed. Right. I loaded up the game and died almost immediately. Then died again. Then, before even reaching the first elevator...dead again. So I wandered around for awhile trying to remember where I needed to go, and just for fun I died some more.

It was then I began to remember just how little the game helps you, or guides you, or even encourages you. Big boss tells you to infiltrate a building and warns you not to get caught. That's basically it. You have no weapons, no map, and no real clue where you're supposed to go. Good luck, buddy!

Various characters give you frequency numbers you'll need for your radio. Will the game remember these for you? No. You must write them down. Often you must retrace your steps to specific locations, sometimes on different floors of the building. Looking for a map? It's on that grid paper sitting next to you - the one you drew with your own pencil. Forgot to write down the frequencies or make a map? You're going to get real familiar with that elevator, because that's where you re-spawn after you die. A lot.

Of course, there's always GameFAQs...but would Snake choose such a cowardly shortcut? After about an hour, I decided he most definitely would.

I'm hardly the first to observe it, but games used to be hard, folks. Never was this more clear to me than when I assigned my students the Infocom text adventure Planetfall a few years ago. Ten minutes into the game, nearly all of them were stuck on the ship scrubbing floors with no clue how to go anywhere or do anything. They had similar problems with arcade classics like Robotron and Defender (which is one of the hardest games of all time), the Ultima series, and even the early Super Mario games.

For me, I think it's mostly about conditioning. I'm definitely rusty with games I once breezed through (at least, that's how I remember it), and it's probably not coincidental that prior to jumping into Metal Gear I was spending most of my time re-playing Beyond Good & Evil - a game I dearly love, but also a game that holds your hand in a myriad of ways and punishes you in very few. Does that mean BG&E is a game for the weak and MG for the strong? Of course not, and I'm not terribly interested in the hardcore/casual delineations, which seem to me arbitrary at best.

But I do find myself wondering if I will ever find games like Metal Gear truly fun again. When I finally knocked the rust off last night, I did move forward in the game and enjoyed the clever, stealthy challenges. It (and its superior sequel) are still terrific games, but I'm inclined to add "for their time" to the end of that sentence. After a couple of hours, I stopped playing and felt satisfied with the experience - with no real desire to continue. I'm ready for MGS4, which was really the whole point anyway.

One final note sure to destroy any of my remaining hardcore street cred: after an hour of frustration controlling Snake with my keyboard, I hooked up a gamepad, remapped the controls, and was a much happier and more comfortable gamer. Jelly donut? Maybe, but I can live with it. :-)

FYI, I played Metal Gear using the cross-platform OpenMSX emulator. Windows users may prefer BlueMSX, which is very slick and customizable. Both projects are open source and freely distributable.

Bloggers en fuego

032704blogger_2 I subscribe to a fair number of video game blogs, and I can't help noticing that many of my favorite writers seem to be firing on all cylinders these days, writing insightful posts on a variety of issues related to the medium we know and love.

Maybe the current lull in the game release schedule has given us a chance to stop and reflect a little. Or maybe we're simply all out of money and typing words on a screen is cheaper than buying more games. Whatever the reason, I'm certainly enjoying it, and I'm grateful for the many ways these writers help me think harder and more carefully about video games.

Here are a few of my recent favorites. I'm purposely omitting old standbys like Gamasutra  to focus on single-writer blogs. You may not agree with everything you read in these pieces, but they all provoke a considerable amount of thought.

  • In an essay titled "What's our mandate?" (and a follow-up post here) Leigh Alexander suggests that game writers and fans have a responsibility to consider games in the context of real-world issues:

Our industry burgeons and swells with money against the backdrop of larger social issues, and on forums everywhere, the majority of the vocal audience wants to know, "does it have multiplayer?" We want to know if the graphics suck or if there will be a sequel.

There is a crisis of conscience here.

Now, in love and war, in sin and grace, humanity's always loved its entertainment, and to place the burdens of the world even in that arena would never be my objective. But I just don't think the schism between our world and the real world needs always be so wide.

  • In "Just Call It A Game" Richard Terrell argues that Wii Fit ought to be classified as no less a game than any RPG or fighting game you can name:

For those who still think that WiiFit is the death of gaming, consider that WiiFit is more of a game than most current gen videogames. Taking the primary mechanic "move your body" WiiFit offers more than 40 different challenges with varying degrees of difficulty ... With each activity, the player uses one of the most complex machines on earth: the human body. In this way, WiiFit's mechanics become the mechanics of life reaching beyond the limits most videogames are trapped by.

While there is no gameplay behind making bushes and trees sway and rustle from gusts of wind, it makes the player feel in control and like he is directly affecting the world. I've never felt like I'm really directly affecting the world in Super Mario Bros. Instead, I directly affect the other inhabitants of the world, but not the world itself...

In LostWinds this changes the entire way of traversing and interacting with the world ... Every gust affects trees, enemies, fire, water, and even NPCs. The player truly feels as if he is directly affecting the world around him, something that is isn't found in the standard 2D platform game.

(For a dissenting view on LostWinds, check out Mitch Krpata's review in The Phoenix.)

Telling someone they should pay to see a movie is not the same thing as explaining why a movie is important culturally, or even what it adds to cinema. Yet the problem is mostly conceptual; video game critics need to recognize that they are not talking to consumers. Literary critics circumvent this dilemma because they usually have the privilege of assuming you’ve already read the book they’re discussing. There also isn’t much to discuss in terms of whether the reader actually liked the text or not. If you’re reading a thirty page essay on masculinity and feminine authority in Macbeth, it’s a pretty safe bet you already like the play ... The problem with game criticism, then, is that many of us are still subconsciously selling the game to people.

  • In "I was a teenage reaper" Michael "Sparky" Clarkson explains how game mechanics and game story come together in The World Ends With You:

The difficulty of combat, the tunability of the game system, and the intricacy of its rules makes it very clear that this will mostly appeal to core gamers. Yet the beneficial aspects of shutting off the DS enforce a schedule more familiar to casual players. The point of the game's story, however, is that keeping to yourself is the wrong way to live. By rewarding the player for turning the game off and hanging out with his (DS-owning) friends, The World Ends With You encourages the same behavior in the player's life that it is suggesting for Neku's. The mechanics are constructed to make the player's actions fit the theme.

One of the coolest things about The World Ends With You is the fact that the designers were not content to follow RPG conventions. It’s as if for every small aspect of the game, they thought to themselves: “How can we do this differently?” Indeed, the sheer number of interesting and strange mechanics they came up with is staggering. Don’t take my word for it, here’s a summarized spoiler-free list: ...

Most music theory nerds I know have a certain musical feature that really gets them excited — an unusual harmonic progression, a favorite chord, a particular rhythmic figure. For me, that feature is irregular meter. In my experience irregular meter is fairly uncommon in video game soundtracks, so I thought I’d collect what few examples I’ve come across here.

  • Finally, game designer Steve Gaynor's "Call To Arms 2008" asks all of us to create our own design ideas that challenge the status quo (so far, he has received 10 interesting proposals):

The challenge then is to express through interaction an experience that the player will find meaningful-- something novel, poignant, interesting, personal, or enlightening. As video game designers, we've explored a few forms of conflict with great fidelity: mostly direct and violent; mostly expressing the feeling of prevailing over one's rivals.

So, Fullbright proposes a public thought experiment; a decentralized game design symposium; a call for new takes on interactive expression.

I hope you enjoy these posts. If you find something you especially like, I encourage you to post a comment or subscribe to the blog feed. These are the best ways for us to know somebody out there cares. :-)

This I believe...except when I don't.

Hideokojima The pending release of Metal Gear Solid 4 has me thinking about fundamental tenets of game design and a growing awareness of my own hypocrisy. If I sat down and thought about it - which I guess is what I'm doing right now - I could make a list of the basic design principles I believe in and have advocated on this blog. So here goes:

  1. Video games must develop their own language of meaning. While narrative games can borrow useful tools from film, novels, comic books, etc., ultimately the medium must communicate its distinctive interactive properties in its own ways.

  2. I believe in Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn's notion of "inescapable narrative":

    It's the perfect non-linear narrative environment. You walk through it and there are all these stories around you, and in general they're part of your culture. Our favorite games have strong emotion...where you're really there and you never stop being curious about the things around you...It's about being, rather than seeing, and that's why games are more closely related to architecture than film. [1]

  3. "Show, don't tell" makes sense in every other visual medium, but I believe Corvus Elrod's revised version of that dictum should apply to video games.
    1. It is not enough to “show, don’t tell,” when showing takes the play out of the experience. So, perhaps, the rule for video games ought to be, “Let me do, don’t show, don’t tell.” [2] 

  4. Strict linearity unnecessarily limits the player's autonomy and engagement with the world. When a game limits my interactivity to pre-scripted linear goals and missions, I'm little more than a pawn, and my experience ceases to feel personal or unique to me.

  5. Cutscenes are narrative crutches that reduce the player's engagement from active participant to passive observer.

  6. Video games must learn to tell stories that go beyond killing and violence as the core gameplay experience. First-person-shooters featuring conflicted heroes and thematic meditations on the meaninglessness of war will not do the trick. We need new stories that address other aspects of the human condition.

So that does it for "this I believe." I'm sure I could come up with a few others if I tried, but I'm distracted by this pesky little man on my shoulder bearing an unsettling resemblance to Hideo Kojima. He whispers in my ear:

"You're a hypocrite, Abbott. You pontificate like you've got it all figured out, but I know the truth about you. You want my game bad, don't you? Admit it. You're way more excited than you were for that silly sandbox Gotham, aren't you? You want my game, and you want it now. Well I've got news for you, smart guy. My game breaks every one of your stupid little rules. That's right. Every single one. How do you like that? Hmm? What do you say now? Yeah, I thought so. Still want it. Can't wait to play it. You're a very silly man, Abbott. A very silly man."

And I have no defense. I'm a hypocrite indeed. MGS4 will likely defy most of my hopes for the future of video games and, oddly enough, I don't care. My enthusiasm for the game remains undiminished, largely because I believe in Kojima's vision and his signature grip on the series. Linear missions? Bring 'em. 90-minute cutscenes? I'm there.

Maybe he won't pull it off this time. Maybe the game will finally succumb to that self-indulgent streak that has threatened all the Solid titles. But I feel confident about one thing: the game will be full of ideas. Big, political, eccentric, ambitious, goofy, inspired ideas. And artists with big ideas can sometimes make us forget about what we expected. We'll soon see, won't we?

A Metal Gear primer

Metal_gear_solid_4 So let's say you're excited, interested, or even mildly curious about the pending release of Metal Gear Solid 4, but you never got around to playing some of the titles in the series. Heck, let's say you've never played any of the games, but all the ballyhoo about "OctoCamo," new reconnaissance toys, and movie-length cutscenes has you thinking it's finally time to jump into the Metal Gear universe. Let's also assume real life prevents you from running out and buying all six previous games and playing them non-stop before MGS4 comes out in 11 days.

Well, my friend, you have a problem. Of all the franchises that have attached a story to a video game, none have done so with more (and often maddening) intricacy than the Metal Gear games. What's what and who's who matter a lot in the world of Metal Gear, and while it's possible to enjoy the stealth and combat without knowing anything about the characters or story, Mr. Kojima really expects us to have been paying attention all these years, and MGS4 will undoubtedly reward those who have - at least those who are able to make sense of it all.

But don't worry, my friend, the Brainy Gamer is here to help. :-) I've assembled a modest Metal Gear primer intended to get you up to speed and fill in all those nasty gaps. Here's what you'll find:

  1. A chronology of the series with brief blurbs on each game. The list is arranged in ascending order by the year in which each game is set, not by the release dates of the games.
  2. A complete compilation of cutscenes for each game. Clicking play will initiate a playlist that automatically strings together all the movies in the order they occur in each game. Obviously, these are full of spoilers, but that's sort of the whole point in this case, isn't it? Watch these, and you'll understand the narrative arc of the series. Possibly. I mean, it depends how you define "understand."

So go to it, intrepid Metal Gear catcher-upper! Special thanks to Hcloud 13 who assembled the cutscene compilations on his YouTube channel. The game descriptions appear courtesy of the "MGS History" section of the official Metal Gear Solid 4 site.

Remember, MGS4 drops on June 12. Be like Snake and be prepared!

Update: Fans of the Metal Gear Solid games may also enjoy Chris Doucette's wonderful webcomic "The Last Days of FOXHOUND" which recently concluded after 5 years of creative and clever work. Gametrailers also has a 3-part Metal Gear Retrospective which will take you through MGS2.

Click here for the Metal Gear primer.