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August 2008

A conversation about Braid


[Note: I have posted a reply to this essay which I hope you will also read.]

With the help of Iroquois Pliskin of the Versus CluClu Land blog, I'm trying something a bit different with the next few posts. We've agreed to conduct a cross-blog conversation about Braid, sharing our thoughts on the game and responding to each other in a back-and-forth format that also invites comments from everyone. I'm excited to exchange our views of the game in this way, and I'm grateful to Iroquois for inviting me to do it.

Croal Vs. Totilo we ain't, but I'm a lover, not a fighter.  ;-)

We borrowed Harvey Dent's coin (slightly bent from the fall) and it came up heads, so Iroquois gets the opening salvo. I'll return with a response this weekend. Hope you enjoy.

Hi Michael,

I've been looking forward to Braid for a long time now, because I've been listening to Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, talk and critique modern game design for about a year now. Blow really interests me, since he strikes me as one of those quintessential modernist avant-gardistes who is avid to declare that everything being done with the art form is wrong, and that his own magnum opus is going to point the way the future. He's wrong about the tradition, of course, but his mere existence and the viability of his game is a sign that the creative ecosystem for games is healthy and flourishing, as it ought to be.

So I proposed that we conduct this correspondence about the game, and you-- being both gracious and unaware of what you were getting yourself into-- agreed. In the interim, the Internet has been rife with intelligent commentary on the game, so let's move things forward.

When I was racking my brains for something interesting to say about Braid, one of the first things that came to mind was your “narrative manifesto” post last week, which included some comments by Blow. All of the designers you mention seem to recognize a common problem with realizing narrative in games: The player is a creature of whimsy, an “agent of chaos,” and the choices they tend to make with their freedom in the game's world are not usually conducive to narrative coherence. In order to convey a narrative with specificities of character and plot, the designer needs to devise scenarios that take control over the narrative out of the player's hands-- through cutscenes, slow-to-open doors, elevators, and other devices. And by doing this they remove the feature-- interactivity-- which gives games their unique potential as works of art.

Most of your subjects said that their solution is to abdicate the role of author: they put the scriptwriting tools in the player's hands in the form of the game's rules and then give them responsibility for crafting their own interpretation of the world and characters devised by the designer. This approach goes hand-in-hand with a particular gameplay aesthetic, the open-world game genre exemplified by GTA and Oblivion.

Since I've played Braid, I've come to think that Jonathan Blow is the odd-man-out of your examples, Mike. Braid is not about the player's creation of a narrative from the game's rules. It's about finding the one way to get each puzzle piece-- choice doesn't enter into it. And at the level of game design, I think the game is a masterpiece. The time-manipulation mechanic is both innovate and easy-to-use (this is no mean feat), and I liked how each level introduced new wrinkles into the manipulation of time.

The creation of these puzzles is an art in itself, and I thought Blow's design choices on this front were just superb; each challenge struck me as both unobvious and logical. (When I was playing I remembered your recent game-club discussions of Grim Fandango, which illustrated how important it is to strike this balance.) For me, it hit that sweet spot where I found myself mentally navigating some sticky puzzle before I went to bed, and I had to restrain myself from crawling out of bed and firing up the console when the pieces dropped into place just before I went to sleep. (The last game to do this to me is Portal, and this is good company indeed.) When I finally figured out how to get that one piece, I felt like I was being rewarded for doing something genuinely praiseworthy, and for me this sensation is the one experience I wish all games aspired to create.

Blow could have rested his laurels on the quality of the fundamental design. But Blow isn't a man to settle. The little story-vignettes between levels aren't there to tell a story, really, but are there to color the player's experience of how he navigates all the ingeniously-designed puzzles. These vignettes are modest devices as bearers of the game's whole plot, but they are appropriately suggestive-- I really thought they transformed the basic gameplay and invested the mechanics with a sort of allusive depth and significance. I think that Blow's attempt to wed form to content by transforming our experience of the game's mechanics into something with a definite narrative texture was brilliant. It's gotten me thinking about how games themselves (all our other games) alter our experience of time and give free rein to our fantasies about perfection and repeatability. (Maybe you're like me and you just find it satisfying to run across games that have something to say about what games mean to the players, what their ethical significance is. Perhaps it's because they facilitate coming up with blog posts.)

So I love Braid. But I'm wondering what you thought of the artistic package as a whole. I had some reservations about the aesthetics, especially the writing of the narrative vignettes, which carry so much weight. Am I being curmudgeonly for feeling that text is a really retrograde way for a video game to convey its framing themes? Gameplay of this caliber covereth a multitude of sins, but do I give the man a pass on appearing (in some places) to have torn some pages from a high-school journal and pasted them into the game?

Iroquois Pliskin

Beware the straw man

Oz_scarecrow_1 The arrival of Jonathan Blow's highly regarded Braid has fanned the fire surrounding the question of storytelling in games. As I wrote in my recent "Narrative manifesto" essay, lots of very smart and passionate people are thinking hard about how to create genuinely interactive narratives. Games like Braid and the forthcoming Far Cry 2 are described by their creators as efforts to redefine how players experience game-based stories (or is it story-based games?).

As I've mentioned here many times, I'm terribly excited about all this. Lots of us are, and why shouldn't we be? These ideas are sure to impact game design in useful ways, and as we often see in the arts, the inevitable ripple effect will provoke all sorts of other ideas and reactions the originators could never have predicted. These are all positive developments, and I think most of us serious gamers have one message for these innovators: Go Go Go!!

But a curious thing has happened while all this talk of narrative has been going on. Suddenly, we've decided that all video games up to this point  have proven themselves to be hopelessly incompetent storytelling devices. One needn't look far to find all sorts of well-meaning bloggers, enthusiast press writers, and podcasters bemoaning the sorry state of storytelling in video games, some going so far as to ridicule the medium for its misguided efforts to marry gameplay with narrative at all.

One rhetorical strategy for making this accusation stick is the old "straw man" argument: oversimplifying the opponent's position, then attacking the simplified version. So we are reminded of sports or puzzle games with unnecessary story elements tacked on as evidence of the misguided nature of narrative games. Or we explore the limits of games like GTA4 and Bioshock and bemoan the promises broken when it comes to fully identifying with Niko or making truly meaningful ethical choices in Rapture. These "failures" are seen as defining the limits of narrative gaming - reminders that games just aren't quite up to the challenge of telling good stories.


I'm the first to admit this narrative medium is still emerging from its infancy...but what a handsome baby it has been! It requires no strain on my part to recall a fairly large collection of games that have provided narrative experiences I've found compelling and meaningful. System Shock, Deus Ex, The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, Planescape: Torment, Bioshock, Planetfall - these are only a handful of the many I could name. Are any of these perfect? No. Could they be improved in all sorts of ways? Certainly. Although I'm not sure about Planetfall. That one may be a perfect expression of story within a text-based structure.

We often hear that movies are far more capable storytelling vehicles, and that may be so. But consider this: how perfectly constructed is the much-heralded The Dark Knight? In my view, not very. It strains more than it should from heavy-handed metaphors, and its plot mechanics too often make me aware of the wizard behind the curtain. People do smart things in The Dark Knight when the movie needs them to be smart; but when the movie needs them to be dumb, they do really dumb things.

These are mostly mechanical problems: a medium straining to embed literary devices into a visual storytelling form. How different, really, are these problems from the ones we wring our hands about in games? I loved The Dark Knight, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that film has permanently mastered the art of storytelling simply because it is more "evolved."

Video games continue to grow and explore ways  to communicate meaning. I've been playing Braid and thinking about how this game conveys Blow's ideas about interactive storytelling. Lots of good, interesting stuff to explore here, and I'll do that here soon with a little help from my friend Iroquois Pliskin.

In the meantime, I can't help also thinking about Super Mario Bros and Grim Fandango and wondering if Braid would ever have been possible without these and other excellent games like them. No game is the final destination or the ultimate statement. Every  game is another step in the journey, and many of those early milemarker games - flaws and all - gave us stories we should never forget.

Vintage Game Club - what game next?

Rifleclub3_2 Grim Fandango wraps up this week, and our first excursion into vintage game clubbing was a fun and lively success. On behalf of Dan Bruno and David Carlton, I want to thank all of you who joined for helping us launch the club in such a positive way. 64 members, 277 posts and well over 17,000 page views from members and visitors...not a bad start, eh?

So, what game next? We're looking for your ideas and suggestions. If you're a member, come on over and join the conversation about what kind of game experience we'd like to follow Grim Fandango.

If you're not a member but wish to join us, what's stopping you? We'd love to have you, and now would be a great time to jump in. Just hop over to our discussion forum, sign up, and you're in. If you'd prefer not to join but simply want to follow the discussion, you're welcome to do that too.

The Vintage Game Club

Media old and new

Oldtv I enjoy helping acquaint my colleagues with the assortment of technologies we call New Media. I've never been crazy about that term (how much longer can it be considered "new"?), but at this point I guess we're stuck with it. Whatever label we use, the emergence of digital networked communication has forever changed how we create and share information. The challenge for me and my colleagues is to figure out what these technologies have to offer us as teaching and learning tools.

The problem is, colleges and universities are generally resistant to change. For many faculty and staff, this stuff we call "old media" still feels awfully new. Books and newspapers are fine, but you can find plenty of of schools that have yet to fully embrace video and film, let alone that fat pipe that streams porn and knowledge in equally indiscriminate bucketfuls.

So if we believe these new technologies can help enable us and liberate us and bring us together, we must make a case for how that works. It can be helpful to contrast how new and old media typically function, and I just happen to have a personal story that does just that.

I was contacted recently by two people who came across my blog and wanted to interview me. I was surprised and flattered and said yes to both. One was Mike Walbridge, who was writing a story for GameSetWatch; the other was a gentleman from a popular am/fm radio station in the western U.S.. Interview times were arranged; both conversations were pleasant and positive; and I finished each fairly confident that I hadn't humiliated myself - at least any more than usual.

Mike's piece appeared on GameSetWatch and I was pleased to see it. The essay included material from interviews with Kieron Gillen, Leigh Alexander, N'Gai Croal, and several other heavy-hitters, and I felt gratified to even have been included in their company. But as Mike pointed out in his preface:

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: all these writers said very interesting things that are beyond the scope of this article but which I think should still be printed. Also, the way my own opinions and perceptions came about were highly influenced by the order in which I interviewed them, as well as the flow of the discussion. More details and more of their opinions will be posted on my own humble blog in the coming weeks.]

True to his word, Mike has followed up with separate comprehensive and well-written features highlighting each of us. These are useful extensions of his original piece, filling in many blanks and fleshing out many ideas. GameSetWatch returned to pick these up as well, and they also appear on Mike's personal blog, as promised.

This is what new media journalism looks like. A journalist does his homework, writes his story, and fulfills his assignment. The story is posted online and picked up by several other online sites. But it doesn't end there. The journalist returns to his unused material and posts that information on his own. These stories are redistributed again by various sites, and throughout this process readers can post comments or questions, and the journalist can respond with more information, context, or perhaps even more reporting. And, of course, all these posted stories are sprinkled with links to related or other useful sites for even more information.


The radio interview produced a 14-second sound bite of me declaring today's gamers dumber than yesterday's. It appeared wedged into a 1-minute 20-second barrage of other "tech" stories. It yielded no useful information, no additional resources, and it managed to completely mischaracterize my ideas and my writing - all underscored by a busy barrage of music and sound effects under the reporter's voice.

This is what old media looks like. To be sure, it doesn't have to be this way at all, but more often than not, it's exactly like this. The show supercedes the content, and any light that's shed is typically a self-reflexive light on the medium itself. The show is the show. The guy I spoke to was doing commercial broadcast radio. That's the schtick. And that's why it's dying.

I could be accused of choosing extreme versions of the best and worst of new and old media. But I think my own little encounters with both are indicative of fundamental differences that help explain why so many of us are surfing the web when we're supposed to be consuming old media.

And now back to the games. :-)

Ignominious defeat

Defeat Geometry Wars 2 is killing me. Over and over, it's finding new and better ways to kill me. To be fair to the game (and why should I be, since all it wants to do is kill me?) most of the time I'm dying because of my own carelessness or stupid mistakes. But either way you look at it, this game is killing me.

I was pretty good at the first edition of Geometry Wars, mainly because I do better playing defensively. Maybe it's the pacifist in me, but I prefer biding my time, avoiding trouble, and shooting my way out of situations only when cornered. That strategy worked fairly well in GW1, but GW2 insists that I take it to those pinwheels, diamonds, and snakes with extreme prejudice. That's fine, and I'm glad the sequel feels like a different game, but the new version doesn't play to my strengths. And so I die in King; I die in Evolved; and I die in Pacifism - the one mode I hoped might offer me a reprieve.

Every time I play an arcade game that knocks me on my arse, I think of Ikaruga. Even typing that word makes my left eye twitch just a little. Ikaruga is the hardest game I've ever played, and that includes video games, coin-op games, board games, card games, Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles - you name it, Ikaruga is harder. I think about Ikaruga because, for me (and I know other gamers with actual talent disagree) Ikaruga crosses the line that separates fair and unreasonable challenge. When I die in GW2, I get mad at myself. When I die in Ikaruga, I get mad at the game.

This line makes all the difference for me because Ikaruga ceases to be fun when it kills me, but dying in GW2 only makes me want to play it more. Because I know I can do this thing. I just know it. Damn, I just died again.

There was a day when I enjoyed my one shining moment. Several years ago, after having been thoroughly thrashed by my students in Halo 2, I decided to demonstrate my mad old-school skills with Robotron 2084. I brought in my fancy X-Arcade dual joystick controls, loaded up the game on my computer connected to a classroom projector, and proceeded to quadruple the best score posted by any of my students - my glory displayed on a giant screen for all to see and wonder at with awe.

They say the Geometry Wars games are inspired by Robotron, but I just can't see it. If that were true, I'd be a master at both, right? No. They're totally different games. Totally different. Maybe I'll try to hook up these X-Arcade sticks to my Xbox 360. Yeah, that's the ticket. These gamepad thumbsticks are a joke. How can you even play with these? It's an equipment issue. Arcade sticks are the only way to go. Hey look, I just died again.

I'm reviewing Geometry Wars 2 for Popmatters later this week, so I've got a lot more dying to do before I'm done with it. I need to try the co-op and co-pilot modes, but it's hard to find anybody in my house who thinks this game would be fun to play. Why should they when all they ever hear is my screaming?


Firstbirthday The Brainy Gamer launched one year ago today, and what a wonderful year it has been.

When I started last August, I hoped to find an audience for "thoughtful conversation about video games," but for the first two months it was a fairly one-sided conversation. I tried to write every day, and gradually my traffic grew. By the time our baby Zoe arrived in November, I had a small but devoted group of readers and listeners to the podcast, many of whom sent best wishes to us in the hospital. It was then I realized I was in this for the long haul.

I'm terribly grateful to those of you who discovered me early on and stuck with me while I learned how to write in this format. I see blogging as a community-building activity, and it took awhile for me to understand how I could best function and contribute to this community. Now, 282 posts and 2,722 reader comments later, I've come to see The Brainy Gamer as my online home and the central locus of my work as a teacher, gamer, and scholar.

I could never adequately express my gratitude to so many of you for encouraging me, challenging me, and opening my eyes to a vibrant and passionate (and sometimes thoroughly wacked) world that I once only understood from the outside.

Thank you for reading and listening.


Narrative manifesto

Storyteller_2 A curious convergence has emerged around the design and direction of narrative video games. Many of the most thoughtful and articulate members of the games community are collectively pointing us toward a new mode of storytelling - one that will deliver genuinely interactive narrative experiences to the player. These visionaries (and I believe they deserve that designation) do not all agree, nor do they share a single strategy or roadmap. But each in his own way has planted a flag in the soil and declared "This I believe." Now, it would seem, is the time for a narrative manifesto.

Perhaps "manifesto" is too strong a word for what I'm describing, but at the moment I can't think of a better one. Most dictionaries define the term as a public declaration of intentions, motives or views. Beyond that simple definition, however, manifestos are intrinsically anti-status-quo. Regardless of its framework -  politics, ideology or art - a manifesto is a defiant call for change and an implied "Who's with me?" All of the people I'm about to describe are plugging into something that sounds very much like a collective manifesto to me.

As far as I can tell, the current momentum for change has its roots in a presentation by Doug Church entitled "Abdicating Authorship," delivered at GDC in 2000. Church observed:

Our desire to create traditional narrative and exercise authorial control over the gaming world often inhibits the player's ability to involve themselves in the game world. ... The revelation of the [game] designer's intent is not interactivity. [1]

This core notion - that "interactive gaming" in its current state is essentially a sender-receiver relationship between designer and player - serves as the basis for nearly all the brainstorming and deep thinking about narrative video games today. These are a few of the thinkers: 

Patrick Redding and Clint Hocking - Dynamic story architecture
Redding and Hocking want to redefine the narrative process by getting out of the player's way. They believe what a growing number of designers now believe: the designer builds a system, but the player authors the story.

That means you need a game designer working at a dedicated role on the game design team, who's focusing just on that, who's really not principally concerned with whether the guns are balanced, or whether the vehicles are driving properly. And at the same time on the level design side isn't primarily there just to kind of help concoct missions, but is really there to try to make sure that every time the player feels like they ought to have a say in the way things are unfolding, that there's some system that supports it.

We just say, let's take the player as close as we can,...put him into this really, really difficult position, a terrible situation that probably most of us would like to avoid if we could, and try to get him to make decisions in a way that will help him survive, that will help him pursue his larger goals, that will allow him to potentially change those larger goals if he decides that he doesn't believe in them anymore, and to be able to deal with characters and situations on a case by case basis. In other words, give him the freedom to fuck up, give him the freedom to have a moment of triumph, or a moment of weakness, or moments of regret.

These are all things that we try to let the player do, but since we can't know what's in the player's heart, we can't know what the player's thinking - and hell, maybe 80% of our players are just like, "Yes, this is great fun! I'm blowing stuff up and burning things." Maybe only a small piece of that message gets though. And if that's the case, that's fine. We've still built a really good shooter. But what we're saying is, for that percentage of gamers who are affected by these things, and who think about these things, we want it to be there. [2]

Jonathan Blow - Conflicted games
Jonathan Blow sees a disconnect between the storytelling many games profess to value and the gameplay they actually provide. The conflict that emerges prevents games from affecting players in the ways linear media like film can do.

As our computational abilities have increased, our aspirations have raised to movies. ... Gameplay elements have meanings outside of the visual and linear; the meaning of the gameplay rules is often in conflict within the visual meanings from the linear meanings, which results in a game becoming conflicted. [3]

He cites Half-Life 2 as an example of this conflict:

You often end up in a sealed-off area with your in-game companion Alyx Vance, and when you kill enough enemies you can move on to the next arena. Alyx will open these doors when you’ve cleared the room. Finally, opening a locked door gives you in-game rewards. Blow notes: "In other words, doors are the obstacles keeping you from the good stuff." In the game, the writers want you to feel close to Alyx, so you have short cut-scenes, and story elements happen as the doors are being opened. In this case, the game designer has taught you to get through the doors quickly so you can get your hands on the goodies - while the scriptwriters want to use this opportunity for you to get to know Alyx. The gameplay is well designed, and so is the fiction, but "...they fit together disingenuously." [4]

One solution to close this gap, according to Blow, is to design games whose narratives are implicit, rather than explicit, and his recently released game Braid is clearly an effort to do just that. Blow has generously made available his recent lecture and accompanying slides from which the above remarks were taken. Chris Dahlen has also written about Blow's ideas in context with Braid, and I recommend giving his essay a look.

Steve Gaynor - The game designer's role
Gaynor sees the designer as a "hands-off" creator who enables the player with the tools and agency to co-author her experience. Gaynor believes the most powerful experiences are the ones the player creates for herself.

Video games are not a traditional storytelling medium per se. The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of books or film. Rather, a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld. These are player stories, not author stories, and hence they belong to the player himself. Unlike a great film or piece of literature, they don't give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else's work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience, acts attempted and accomplished by the player as an individual, unique memories that are the player's to own and to pass on.

This property is demonstrated when comparing play notes, book club style, with friends-- "what did you do?" versus "here's what I did." While discussing a film or piece of literature runs towards individual interpretation of an identical media artifact, the core experience of playing a video game is itself unique to each player-- an act of realtime media interpretation-- and the most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for. To the player, video games are the most personally meaningful entertainment medium of them all. It is not about the other-- the author, the director. It is about you.

So, the game designer's role is to provide the player with an intriguing place to be, and then give them tools to perform interactions they'd logically be able to as a person in that place-- to fully express their agency within the gameworld that's been provided. [5]

L.B. Jeffries - Non-linear reactive stories
Jeffries is the wild card of the bunch since he's not a game designer, but he consistently produces some of the most astute game writing around, and his perspective as a critic is informed by a unique set of experiences. In this case, he brings to bear his training as a tarot card reader to suggest players are hard-wired to create meaning.

Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them.

In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you. [6]

I find it interesting, and terribly exciting, that all the essays referenced above appeared nearly simultaneously. Change is afoot in narrative game design, and while these things usually arrive more like a slow tide than a lightning bolt, it's enormously encouraging to discover the many ways these ideas are nurtured, shared, and cross-fertilized. It's easy to be skeptical about dreams and promises, but I'm hopeful about where these ideas will take us.

Many thanks to Gamasutra, the go-to resource for in-depth interviews and games industry coverage. I could not have written this piece without them.

Garden of delights


I don't do the "play until you're bleary-eyed and pass out in your chair" thing very often these days. I don't have the stamina for it anymore, and "sleeping in" is a luxury I forfeited some time back in the Reagan era.

But there I was at 3am this morning playing PixelJunk Eden, searching for that last seed, hoping to open just one more garden, suffering from a bad case of gamer claw...and loving it. The newest and best PixelJunk game has me utterly in its spell, and I've already begun to notice a low-level anxiety developing inside me over the fact that it will eventually end. If we don't see DLC for this game, I will personally track down producer Dylan Cuthbert and give him what for!

PixelJunk Eden is a masterful collection of opposites: easy and difficult; simple and intricate; stark and sumptuous; soothing and infuriating; innocent and devious. It strikes that perfect Mario-mantra balance of easy to play and difficult to master.

Persistence is rewarded, but luck helps too. Strategy improves your odds, but sometimes having no plan is the best plan. Patience can pay off, but sometimes aggressiveness works best. In the later levels, you will need a savvy combo of all these to survive, but just like the best Mario games, PixelJunk Eden seems to know just when you need a mushroom, er, crystal. Rely on this too much, however, and, just like Mario, the game will stop holding your hand and insist you progress on your own.

At the Game Developers Conference in February, Cuthbert spoke about his desire to establish a consistent design aesthetic for the PixelJunk series based on "simplicity, familiarity, and originality." It's easy to see how these three elements define Eden, but they don't quite tell the whole story. With each PixelJunk title (Racers, Monsters, and Eden) Q Games is clearly growing in its understanding of how to build a unified gaming experience around "simple, familiar, and original." Racers had a distinctive look, but problematical gameplay; Monsters had the look and gameplay down, but the game was mostly a dressed up version of Desktop Tower Defense.

With PixelJunk Eden the series finally makes good on all three precepts. The game is simple to control (once you understand how it works); familiar to anyone who has played a platformer; and it is startlingly, refreshingly original. Lots of games use physics-based movement in all sorts of ways, but Eden is built from the ground up as a spot-on interactive physics experience. Swinging in a perfect centrifugal arc and releasing at just the right moment to drift helplessly through the air, finally landing softly on a plant seed that sprouts to lift you higher in the's a genuinely thrilling experience. And if you're like me, you'll find yourself applying all sorts of completely useless body english to every leap and bound.

And when you barely miss your target and fall helplessly to the earth in a long shattering descent, you will know firsthand how this subtle and beautiful game can mash your teeth into your head.

PixelJunk Eden has another trick up its sleeve. Don't tell your mom, but it's a game about sex. Your job is to pollinate the seeds to make them sprout. So you spread the love; things rise and grow bigger; the beat intensifies with pulsating rhythm; and everything culminates in a peaceful but hard-earned climax when you fertilize the last Spectra and make it glow. No wonder I was up late last night.

I could say much more about this game, including its adaptive use of music by Japanese composer Bayion, its terrific drop-in, drop-out co-op mode, and the clever ways it iterates on itself as you move from garden to garden. Remote play on your PSP, video uploads to YouTube, online leaderboards - all for 10 bucks.

Would I pay $399 to play a $10 game? Maybe. Just maybe I would.

Venus and Mars in my living room

Before I begin, a brief advisory: I'm working with a half-baked theory that needs more time in the oven. So if this one's a bit soft in the middle, you'll know why. ;-)

In my interview with N'Gai Croal yesterday we spoke about some of the differences among the consoles, particularly the Xbox 360 and PS3, and how these may reflect differing sensibilities in visual design and aesthetic appeal. I've been thinking about this conversation ever since, and I've been percolating a theory that I'll toss out and then quickly run from the room: My Xbox 360 is a macho man and my PS3 is a sultry woman. I might also say my Wii is a clever child...but I'll save that for another post.

If you're still reading, let me explain what I mean. And remember what I said about the half-baked theory.

Gender, and the assumptions we make about it, play a huge role in the design and marketing of products, from cars to cameras to cosmetics. A product's shape, color, packaging - even the font chosen for the label - all convey a carefully chosen set of messages sent from manufacturer to consumer.

Which is why this:   Lacoste_dream_of_pink   looks very different from this: Axe_body_spray_2even though they are essentially the same type of product.

When I look at my Xbox 360 - when I turn it on; when I hold the gamepad in my hands; when I hear the signature startup sound - everything about that experience feels masculine to me. With the exception of its concave casing (its sole bit of softness, echoed in the Dashboard design), the entire aesthetic experience seems designed to deliver an aggressive high-tech charge of energy. The Dashboard separators most of us would call tabs are labeled "Blades" by Microsoft.

Xbox_live_logo    Psn

Even the logos for the online services convey telling differences.

My PS3, on the other hand, delivers quite a different experience. The softness of the unit's convex lines (there's no way I can do this non-sexually, so I'm not even going to try); the elegant swoosh of color on the XrossMediaBar; the orchestral startup sound; the lightweight Sixaxis controller and the soft feel of its buttons - all communicate an entirely different and, in my view, feminine aesthetic.

Xbox360_2    Ps3_2

Please note that I'm not advocating for an essentialist view of gender here. Men can be soft and women can be hard. It's all good. I'm simply relying on commonly held notions of gender that exist in the marketplace and making assumptions about the audiences these two consoles are aimed at.

Nor am I trying to boil this down to "men play Xbox and women play PS3." Not at all. Gender differences are way more complicated than that, of course. What I am suggesting is that the PS3 speaks to my feminine side and the Xbox 360 speaks to my masculine side.

I'll take my half-baked theory a step further to suggest that we can see these aesthetic differences played out in the games for each system, especially those released for Xbox Live and PSN. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time playing PixelJunk Eden and revisiting flOw, and I've been following coverage of flower, which developer ThatGameCompany describes as a "poem." These games have an unmistakable artistic signature I would characterize as pensive, elegant and graceful - words one might use to describe a woman. Even Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter can be seen as a fluid and feminine take on the shooter genre.

Am I equating "artsy" game with "feminine" game? I guess I am. That, too, could be half-baked.

It's difficult to find parallel or similar experiences on offer at Xbox Live, which focuses much more on action arcade and classic coin-op titles. Recent news from E3 suggests that Microsoft my be trying to soften up the Xbox 360's image with Mii-like avatars and more family-friendly games. But these efforts seem to be focused more on luring the Wii crowd, and it remains to be seen if developers of games like the PixelJunk series will see their work appear on Microsoft's box.

Xbox 360 from Mars, PS3 from Venus. That's my half-baked theory. Does this cake rise or collapse?

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 16

Ngai This episode of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features an interview with N'Gai Croal. We discuss N'Gai's early career, his views on games journalism, user-generated content, "hard-casual" games, and lots more.

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

Related links:

N'Gai's Level Up Blog
Newsweek Magazine

This is not important

Mgs49 My friend Steve Gaynor wrote me to say that he finally finished Metal Gear Solid 4 "out of spite." I was curious about his opinion of the game, partly because I respect his judgment so much, but also because I've struggled to articulate my own thoughts about the game. What exactly is it about MGS4 that disappointed me so much? I've already written about Kojima's cinematic blind spot, but that doesn't fully account for it. And why, if I was so disappointed, did I bother to finish it?

Steve may have finished it out of spite, but I finished the game out of an inexplicable sense of obligation. To whom or what, I don't know. I was supposed to review it for PopMatters, but I bowed out after sitting down to write it twice and getting nowhere. Konami wouldn't provide a review copy, so I had planned to do it on my own dime. In the end, I couldn't muster the enthusiasm for spending more time thinking about the game. I was exhausted and just wanted to move on.

A couple of hours into it, I wrote that I considered MGS4 "a brilliant and inspired game." Why did I think that? Upon its release, the collective perception was that MGS4 was an important game. 26 separate reviews scored the game a perfect 100.[1] Everybody, including me, expected Kojima's magnum opus. The buildup for the game in the months leading up to its release was immense. From the moment the opening screen loads, MGS4 presents itself in such an unabashedly self-important way that the awesomeness of the game and the profundity of its message become simple facts, regardless of their actual merits.

When I reflect on it, I persevered in MGS4 long after I would have baled out of any other game because I kept thinking it was all going to coalesce into something meaningful. I wasn't interested in how Kojima would weave together the storylines from previous games into something that made sense. Honestly, the Metal Gear games have never made sense to me.

I got caught up in the pure thematic ambitiousness of the story and earnestly thought it would add up to something important. Those four tortured women. The helpless victims of violence. The futility of war. Video games just don't deal with these things, After about the 5th in-game PowerPoint presentation I realized it just wasn't going to happen. MGS4 claims to be interested in these things, but really it's all about fan service; making sense of the series; tying together multiple loose ends of a baroque and nearly incomprehensible plot. In the end, MGS4 spends most of its time staring at its own reflection.

We bandy about Citizen Kane because we're looking for a comparable game we can point to as indisputable evidence of video games' cultural respectability. I've already argued why I think that's the wrong way to go, but maybe there is a lesson in Citizen Kane after all.

Orson Welles was a powerful director, but he wasn't a free agent. He fought with studios, producers, writers, and anybody else that disagreed with him throughout his career. Citizen Kane was not the product of one man's unfiltered imagination. Welles had two powerful collaborators in cinematographer Gregg Toland and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Both contributed mightily to the film, and neither hesitated to inform the 26-year-old Welles when they thought he was wrong; a fact Welles acknowledged gratefully for the rest of his life.

I wonder if Mr. Kojima's inspired creative ownership over the Metal Gear series may have ultimately suffocated the final installment. MGS4 desperately needs an editor. Kojima is a gifted designer, but someone needs to tell him Drebin is a cumbersome narrative crutch, and Sunny is a cipher; and a bloated epilogue with an interminable death scene is a very bad idea. With all due respect to Kojima and his genius, if he had lost a few battles with strong savvy collaborators, MGS4 might have been a better game.

I guess it's easy to be surprised by little games and disappointed by big ones. At the moment, PixelJunk Eden is my idea of a nearly perfect video game, and MGS4 is my idea of a bloated failure. I realize that's probably unfair. An enormous amount of time and energy went into Solid Snake's last hurrah, and I enjoyed quite a few of the stealth missions. But I so wanted it to be more. PixelJunk Eden is what it is. It makes no claims to be an "important" game. MGS4 lays claim to much bigger territory. It aspires, in all sorts of ways, to be an important game about important things. But it's not. I wish it was.