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June 2009

The Darkness


This post contains relevant information about The Darkness, but no major spoilers. If you prefer to know nothing about a game before playing it, stop reading now.

Jackie, don't hesitate. Don't be confused. I am here now.
                                                             --The Darkness

The Darkness takes you to hell and back. Twice. In between those hallucinatory detours, the game spins a familiar mob story of betrayal and revenge set in the lower third of Manhattan. There's a power-crazed mob boss, an innocent girlfriend, a corrupt cop, and a motley assortment of savvy wiseguys, dealers, and street toughs. As a crime family story, The Darkness sticks to a well-trodden path. Fortunately, there's more to the story.

The Darkness is a character-driven game, and Starbreeze clearly lavished attention on this element of its design. The quality of the vocapped performances rises well above other games because the dialogue is exceptionally well written (script by Paul Jenkins and Mikael Säker), and every character - even the corner junkie and paranoid woman in the subway - is voiced by a convincing actor, with all the subtleties and imaginative inflections professionals bring to the process.

When a developer hires a seasoned actor like Kirk Baltz (best known for playing the tortured cop in Reservoir Dogs) to play a small supporting role (Anthony Estacado) in its game, that developer is trying hard to do things right. In The Darkness, the effort pays off. Okay, maybe a few of the collectible answering machine messages sound cheesy, but we'll chalk that up to 'bonus content' not relevant to the main story.

But let's be honest. The dialogue and characters in The Darkness are impressive for a video game. The highest production standard we can find (and this game is among the best I've seen) is the bare minimum one would expect from a film or play. When you objectively consider the game's latex-like facial animations (especially among the older characters) and dodgy lip syncing, the verisimilitude gap widens significantly. Some reviewers see "great storytelling" in this game; but The Darkness is, at best, a potboiler crime thriller with a supernatural twist.

That last paragraph was a straw man, by the way. Time to tear him down.

"I'm a contract killer. I, uh, kill people for the Franchetti crime family."
The Darkness isn't about traditional storytelling at all. Sure, it has a linear plot and characters voiced by actors, but The Darkness isn't a video game knock-off of Goodfellas, nor is its presentation especially cinematic. The Darkness is an unflinching exploration of a tormented man's psyche. It relies on the power of first-person interactivity to bring the player face to face with the seductiveness of evil. Seeing the world through Jackie's eyes enables you to explore the life of a contract killer - a man, ironically, of honor - in ways that go farther and deeper than merely pulling a trigger and watching a cutscene.

The Darkness is a shooter because that's what Jackie Estacado is. Jackie kills people for a living. He has awesome powers at his disposal because the Darkness has chosen Jackie as its vessel. These powers come at a terrible price, forcing Jackie to live in the shadows and taking control of him at the worst possible moment.

The player sits squarely between Jackie and the Darkness. We empathize with Jackie, but we need the Darkness to survive. Like the Darkness, we can control Jackie's actions, but not his mind. Like Jackie, we can hold the Darkness at bay, but never silence it. Sometimes we choose dark powers simply because of their allure. A gun would do the job...but not nearly so thrillingly.

Weapons and destructive powers rarely mean anything in games. They're tools that must be reloaded or recharged. At worst they drain mana or energy. Every time Jackie summons the Darkness, it's a small self-loathing surrender.

Video games are forever trying to integrate their gameplay mechanics with their narratives. The Darkness succeeds where so many others fail because the act of killing, especially when enabled by Jackie's malicious dark powers, functions as an ongoing dialogue between the honorable man Jackie wants to be and the hungry creature lurking inside him. At every turn you have a choice: not a choice of whether to kill, but a choice of how. In Jackie's world, there's a right way, a wrong way, and an expedient way.

"Ever been in love with somebody who was so beautiful and pure, you couldn't bear to show them your own darkness?"
Much of the game's narrative impact comes from the struggle within Jackie to confront the darkness inside him. It's possible to see the entire game as a meditation on this struggle. Jackie's trips to the Otherworld, his relationship with Jenny, his (and your) choices to accept or reject side missions - all these activities are accompanied by gameplay that informs the meaning of Jackie's actions. You can cuddle with Jenny on the couch and watch a movie, and you can shoot a man in the head, tear open his chest, and devour his heart. You will probably do both.

The Darkness isn't a sandbox game. It's a carefully authored experience, and in this context 'choice' isn't so much about branching paths as about constructing a persona for Jackie in your own head. Behaving honorably or viciously won't alter the outcome of the game one way or another, but your lingering sense of the Darkness' (and its haunting pleas for "more, more blood") will deeply affect your thinking as you make your way through the game. When you are confronted with choices, such as accepting leadership of the crime family late in the game, you will likely weigh that decision against the path you've charted for Jackie throughout the game. That choice has no meaningful outcome in the game, but it still felt terribly important to me.

"There's always a little light in the darkness."
So much more can be said about The Darkness. The locations, especially the subways, are visually terrific and full of content worth stopping for. The gleefully malevolent Darklings are hysterical ("Human flesh is porky meat!"); the nightmarish settings and characters of the Otherworld tell their own haunting story; Kirk Acevedo's vocal performance as Jackie is among the best I've heard in any game. And then there's the couch. I'll let you discover that one for yourself.

Lots of us overlooked The Darkness when it appeared two years ago. As Paulie Franchetti says, "If you know what's good for you, don't do that Jackie."

Double take

Darkness    Masseffect

I'm doubting myself a bit lately. Two games - The Darkness and Mass Effect - are making me wonder why I responded to them so negatively when they first appeared. Revisiting both games this week, I see them in very different lights. Both have flaws, but looking back on my original responses, I somehow overlooked or blinded myself to the many ways these games succeed, and I'm trying to figure out why that happened.

I was especially tough on Mass Effect. In one essay I scolded the game for its awkwardness as interactive cinema. In another, I took issue with an infomercial produced to publicize the game. In a third piece, I wrote disparagingly about Mass Effect's unfortunate visit to the 'uncanny valley.' To be fair, I did praise the game for its depictions of race, but my overall response was mostly negative. Looking back, I realize that I never bothered to write about the game. Instead, I zeroed in on its stylistic elements and promotional campaign. Why did I do that?

The Darkness received even worse treatment from me. I completely ignored it. Didn't even bother to rent it. Playing the game now for the first time, it's clear to me that nearly all my preconceptions about The Darkness were wrong. It's difficult to reconstruct the circumstances, but I'm fairly sure I looked at the game, read a review or two, thought "just another shooter," and moved onto the next shiny box. The Darkness isn't just another shooter at all. Why did it take me two years to figure that out?

I haven't completed either game (near the end of The Darkness, but a long ways off with Mass Effect), so I'm not prepared to write about them yet. But in the meantime, I'm curious to know if anyone else has shared my experience. Have you revisited a game and discovered that you somehow failed to properly appreciate it the first time?

If so, can you account for why? Are we drawn into a blog/website/forum hive mind that prevents us from seeing clearly and deeply for ourselves? Or do we sometimes behave as contrarians looking for an angle ("Everybody thinks Mass Effect is great. Let me tell you why it isn't."). Maybe we don't stop and smell the roses often enough. In the perpetual onslaught of game releases, do we narrow our focus to bullet-point features ("Mass Effect is like an interactive movie!") rather than the whole experience offered by a game?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Maybe you'll help me figure out where I went wrong.

Safari with me


I've played lots of games lately: InFamous, Prototype, Zeno Clash, Blueberry Garden, Tiger Woods 10 (play the Wii version, folks), Punch-Out!, Plants vs Zombies, Space Invaders Extreme, Zen Pinball. Summer game drought? I don't think so.

I've greatly enjoyed some of these games, but none has captured my imagination like Afrika, a safari simulator developed by Rhino Studios in collaboration with National Geographic. First announced at Sony's E3 press event in 2006, the game was released last year in Japan, China, and Korea, but never appeared in North America or anywhere else. Eager to get my hands on it, I recently imported the Korean version (renamed Hakuna Matata) which contains an English language option, and I've been playing it nearly every day since.

In Afrika, you take photographs of animals and other wildlife. That's it. That's the whole game. I'm calling it a game. You may decide to call it something else.

Afrika does offer a familiar gameplay formula: you're a photojournalist, and you receive assignments via email. Successfully completing assignments opens up new areas to explore and unlocks new equipment, such as camera lenses and camping gear. But this framework adds little more than structure to the experience. The real heart of the game is simply being there, in the Serengeti, with your camera.

When I write about games, I usually look for a hook; something about a game that makes it distinctive or meaningful to me. Afrika throws me a curve. I don't know what the hook is. I love this game - I mean, I truly adore it - but I'm struggling to account for precisely why. I can describe the things I like about it, but none of them quite captures the essence of the experience this game delivers.

Maybe that's because Afrika relies so much on my imaginative engagement. What I bring to the experience is at least as important as what the game brings me. When I play Afrika, I feel like an explorer with a purpose. My camera is a personal extension of me, and it encourages me to define my own objectives, capture my adventures, and share them with others.

For example, sometimes I focus on taking good pictures (you can see a few of my photos here). Lighting, camera angle, and choice of lens are all dynamic factors in Afrika. If I want to set up a tripod to capture a family of meerkats at dusk with just the right depth of field and a backdrop of reds and oranges, I can do that. No mission on my in-game computer is imperative. If I want to spend three days tracking a herd of elephants, I can do that too.

Sometimes, I explore just to explore. I wander around and watch the animals. The environments and animations in Afrika are astoundingly vibrant and detailed. Occasionally you may encounter a group of flamingos all locked in an animation loop, but such occurrences are surprisingly rare. For the most part, the world of Afrika seems to exist on its own, regardless of your presence, and its inhabitants do what they do...including hunt and kill each other, which you can photograph. If you're looking for violent content, that's as close to it as Afrika gets.

The game insists that you remain an observer. Some players may find this separation from the environment disconcerting. You cannot run over zebras with your jeep. You cannot kill or set fire to anything. If you bump into a shrub, it's like bumping into a wall. You can't destroy or otherwise alter anything in the environment. You can only photograph it.

The animals, on the other hand, are keenly aware of your presence, and if you approach a hippo or elephant, they will charge at you. Other animals are skittish and flee if you move too quickly or get too close. This element of interactivity affects how you function as a photographer. Climbing a tree may offer your best vantage point for capturing your subject. Unfortunately, the game's missions sometimes insist on those moments happening elsewhere, and you'll discover that the nature magazine cover shot of elephants bathing can only be found at the waterfall.

Afrika may be the game that best illustrates the folly of inserting ludic elements into an interactive experience that really doesn't need them. To be sure, Afrika is a PS3 "game." Most players will approach it as such, inserting the game disc prepared for a game experience. Afrika conforms, but it could have been the game that purposefully didn't, providing a model for self-directed interactivity, unbounded by arbitrary gates and locks.

What if the whole map was open to me from the beginning? What if I could navigate my own way around the various environments, mapping the locations myself, and discovering where the game's dozens of animals can be found? The base camp could remain and so could my laptop computer. I could still send off my photos for publication and earn money for better equipment, but what if I initiated these contacts myself, taking charge of my own career and pursuing my own interests, rather than waiting for the next email to tell me what to photograph?

Maybe, like me, you'll decide to be subversive. After proceeding far enough into the game and unlocking enough content, you can turn Afrika into the game you want it to be. In my case, I show our 20-month-old daughter an encyclopedia photo of a Hartebeest, and I ask her if she'd like to help me find one. She invariably says yes, so I hand her a battery-dead controller (so she can "help" me) and we hop in our jeep and go searching. When she locates one, we park the jeep and head out on foot to take the best photo we can. Then we show it to mom.

Of course, the designers clearly built Afrika to enable such freeform gameplay (once you open the locks), so maybe I'm not as subversive as I think.

Afrika has lots of other content, including a Field Guide, a huge selection of photos and video from the National Geographic Library, and a wonderful Viewer mode that cuts from one virtual camera to the next as a day slowly passes from sunrise to sunset. You can also upload your photos in online competitions or save them to a USB drive for your own use. Afrika's terrific soundtrack was composed by Wataru Hokoyama, who channels John Williams without aping him. All in all, it's quite a package.

If you're willing to shift your perspective and expectations a bit, Afrika is a pretty sensational experience. And good news: you don't have to import it like I did. Natsume is publishing the game for North America and, presumably Europe and Australia, with a release scheduled for August. Hakuna Matata!

Next stop: Hyrule

Zeldashoes Attention all Dodongo duelers and Skulltula sharpshooters. The Vintage Game Club is planning its next community playthrough, and this time we're traveling to Hyrule. That's right, folks, we're devoting lucky Game 7 to a Legend of Zelda title, and this self-confessed recovering Zelda fanboy couldn't be happier about it!

But which Zelda game? That's the question we're pondering at the VGC forum, and we'd love your input. If you think you may be interested in joining us for the playthrough, come on over and join in the conversation. We'll discuss possibilities for the remainder of this week, then we'll hold a vote like we always do to choose the game we'll play next.

In case you're not familiar with the VGC, a couple of blogger pals and I - David Carlton of malvasia bianca and Dan Bruno of Cruise Elroy - started the club nearly a year ago in hopes of creating a friendly place where members can collectively play through older games, sharing our thoughts and observations with each other as we go.

The VGC is for people who may have missed some of the classic titles gamers often refer to. It's also for people who enjoy revisiting older games to see how they hold up after all these years. Anyone who loves playing and discussing games is welcome to join in.

As I've mentioned in the past, we all have busy lives, so the club is a no-pressure environment. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. Join in, drop out, come back...whatever. We're just here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

The Zelda conversation is happening here. If you'd prefer not to join the VGC but wish to toss in your 2-cents on a Zelda game, feel free to post your comment below.

Zeno vision


Thank god for the internet. If it weren't for this tube attached to my computer I would have walked right past Zeno Clash. Steve Gaynor stopped me in my tracks with his admiring essay. The RPS guys rang in with their praises. Finally, Matthew Gallant tossed in an enthusiastic Twitter salute, and I knew I needed to give Zeno Clash a closer look. I owe you one, guys.

Zeno Clash is a game of astonishing vision. It bears the signature of game design artists who know exactly what they wish to communicate. It's the rare game that conveys a singular (and wonderfully peculiar) aesthetic universe and then unifies its distinctive elements – thematic, visual, narrative, character, gameplay – into a game experience that plays and feels different. We keep saying to developers, give us something new. Zeno Clash is that game.

Zeno Clash is set in the land of Zenozoik, a name clearly inspired by the Cenozoic Era that saw the demise of the dinosaurs, the continents shifting to their current positions, and the appearance of mammals both strange and familiar, including mastodons, saber-toothed cats, whales, and primates.[1]

Anything is possible in such a world, including hermaphrodite bird-people and parachuting squirrels. Zeno Clash's Chilean team of indie developers turn “strange and familiar” into a design motif, rendering a world that's a bizarre amalgam of prehistoric, fantasy, punk, and Salvador Dali.

But it's an inspired and coherent lunacy. Everything curves in Zenozoik, as if straight lines are an offense to organic nature. All the characters, even the most strange, seem to belong in this sometimes fetid, sometimes alluring world. As art direction goes, Zeno Clash is a triumph of maximizing limited assets, proving there's plenty of vibrant life in Valve's aging Source engine.

Unique environments and character designs are welcome features, but what most distinguishes Zeno Clash is the moral and spiritual universe it establishes via its storytelling. The game's hero is aptly named Ghat. 'Ghat' is a Bengali or Hindu term for the steps leading down to water, most specifically to the Ganges. Ghats are the conduits for ritual cleansing and ablution. They are the means for people to reach the healing place. Ghat doesn't fully understand his purpose in the story, but the mysterious Golem (another carefully chosen character name) seems to see Ghat's role as very much like those river steps.

Zeno Clash presents a world free of moral judgments. Ghat's main task is to wake up. His teacher, Metamoq, asks him at several points what he has learned. Metamoq's philosophy is simple: "If you are satisfied and do what you feel you must do, no matter what that is, then you have reached perfection."

Ultimately, Ghat must locate Father-Mother (trying to avoid spoilers here), but the game clearly suggests that he's not actively seeking or being driven by anything. “It's funny you decided to follow me, Deadra, because I wasn't going anywhere.”

Among the most prominent characters are the Corwids. They sometimes harm people or behave self-destructively, but in the universe of Zeno Clash, they simply are what they are, with no judgment attached. Ghat describes them:

Ghat: “He has his mind set on head-butting things, and nothing will change his mind about that.”
Deadra: “Why would he do that?”
Ghat: “Why not? The Corwids are not slaves of reality, so they can be insane."

Ghat: “Erminia peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, and that is what Erminia did. Because Corwids are not slaves of their needs, of eating or sleeping. There was also Gabel. Gabel ate people, and that is just what he had to do. The Corwids are not slaves to morality or common sense. So if I were like Animasta I would have let Gabel eat me. But I didn't feel I had to be eaten.”

Zeno Clash is much more than a kooky looking brawler. It is an attempt to redefine the core narrative universe that nearly every modern game with a story defaults to. It presents an alternative mythic landscape that colors everything you do in the game, including the brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Brutality means something in this game, and in a sense it also means nothing.

Zeno Clash re-imagines the art of games in ways I find meaningful and exciting, but I have a feeling it won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's an exceptionally fine brawler, but not a very good shooter; it's too difficult at the default setting; it begs for gamepad controls; some enemies reappear too often; and it lacks a proper ending. The voice acting is pretty awful too. And, yes, and the whole thing is sort of out-there.

But if you've ever complained about the copycat sameness of games, Zeno Clash may remind you just how vital, imaginative and audacious these interactive toys can be.

Promises promises


As storytelling vehicles, 1st and 3rd-person shooters have grown increasingly conservative. Games like InFamous and Prototype bring big wow-factor gameplay (upgradeable superpowers, shape-shifting, Parkour movement, open dynamic worlds, etc.), but as stories they're cut out of the same tiny piece of cloth: dark conflicted male hero sets off to seek retribution or justice with requisite set of thrilling combat mechanics in tow. Lately, you can behave badly too. That's innovation.

Recently, we appeared on the verge of a breakthrough. Games like Mass Effect and Bioshock suggested an ethical dimension could be added to the mix, enriching the narrative and adding complexity to characters. So far, this promising element has been reduced to a binary mechanic, useful for enhancing replay value, but adding little to the experience beyond simple outcomes.

So what? InFamous and Prototype are a blast to play (I've finished InFamous, but not Prototype), and they're fun because of their gameplay elements, not in spite of them. Run/jump/climb around an open world, take on missions, accumulate awesome powers, and rain thunder whenever and on whomever I want. What's not to like? It's FUN!!

Yes, it's fun, and so was Crackdown, a game that understood its limitations and thrived within them, delivering exactly what it promised: a locomotive thrill ride of mayhem and destruction. You are a nameless Agent. A super-cop charged with tracking down and eliminating bad guys. As story/character go, that's pretty much it, and Crackdown proved that was plenty.

InFamous is an essentially empty experience because it fails to deliver on its own ambitions. InFamous aspires to be a video game with the thematic richness of a graphic novel and goes to great lengths in its opening minutes and in subsequent cutscenes to suggest its narrative elements matter: the plague, Trish, Cole's personality, his past, his relationships. But in the end these are little more than storytelling window dressing, a flimsy mystery-story framework upon which to hang the masterful and smooth-as-silk gameplay.

In InFamous, narrative depth is reduced to a plot twist, and the seemingly pivotal karma path - the defining aspect of the game's narrative system - proves to be little more than a simple-minded gimmick. Functionally, the story must explain how Cole got his powers, and it does exactly that.

The point I'm making here is that it's altogether fair to meet a game at the place it's aiming and expect it to live up to its own aspirations. While InFamous undoubtedly makes it fun to have a controller in your hands for a few hours, ultimately the game never comes close to exploring "the responsibility that comes from being so powerful."[1] I don't often complain about review scores, but it seems to me InFamous has received an inexplicably wide berth given this gaping hole.

How can a game more closely integrate its narrative, characters, environments, and gameplay? What would such a game look like, and how would it differ from a game like InFamous?

Meet Zeno Clash, an authentically original and inspired fighting game made by a small team of Chilean developers on a limited budget. Zeno Clash steers clear of most narrative game tropes by creating a unique game world within a skewed moral universe that invites rumination and reflection. It's like no place you've ever been in a game.

What's that? Did I just say a brawler (with bad voice acting, by the way) made me think and reflect? Yes. Yes, I did. :-) I'll return tomorrow to explain why.

All you need is a little DLC


This post is my entry in a cross-blog conversation with Nels Anderson about downloadable content for games. Nels is a developer who works at Hothead Games in Vancouver. He's also sharp as a tack and fun to hang out with, as I discovered when I met him a few months ago at GDC in San Francisco. You can read Nels' response here.

This all began innocently, Nels. I was playing Tiger Woods 10 on my PS3 last night when the game alerted me that a new course was available for download. I decided to check out the Playstation Store to see what other goodies I might find, and lo and behold I uncovered the duffer's motherload. More Tiger Woods DLC than I could shake a sand wedge at (full list here). I guess you could describe EA's strategy as "granular."

My first thought: "Wow, look at all this stuff!" My second thought: "Uh oh. They're charging for it. This is gonna get ugly." And I was right. It didn't take long for me to locate the Tiger Woods DLC resistance army already in full swing. From a post at Loot Ninja (a site I enjoy, by the way) called Why I've Decided NOT to buy Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10:

This year, I’m speaking with my wallet...I refuse to buy the game. Charging gamers $3.75 to get Max Stats on their golfer or $1.99 for Expert Wedges (and Irons, Fairway Woods, Drivers, and Putters) is bullshit. They’ve turned it up a notch this year with how much and the amount of cheat codes you can buy.

If any of you feel the same way, I encourage you to not buy the game as well. Let your money do the talking and don’t give it to EA.

This reaction makes little sense to me, and I said so on Twitter: "Tiger Woods 10 DLC: unlock all courses for $2.25 and max your stats for $3.75. Angry gamers call this an insult. I call it a good idea." That's where you came in, objecting to "DLC that's just cheat codes." Then we challenged each other to a dual at dawn, but cooler heads prevailed and we agreed on a cross-blog conversation instead. ;-)

EA made a good move and here's why. They've found a way to balance the needs and desires of two very different types of players. One savors the challenge of unlocking courses as a reward for progressing through the game. The other has no interest in plowing through challenges or racking up points. This player sees the list of courses available and wants to play them immediately. The first player, likely a more experienced gamer, understands the system of unlocking content based on in-game performance as a game design staple and a long-time feature of the Tiger Woods franchise. Both players get the gaming experience they want.

Isn't EA just cashing in by monetizing cheat codes? Yes and no. Yes, they've clearly figured out how to make more money, and that never seems to go well with gamers, especially when those gamers perceive they're being charged for something that used to be free. I don't begrudge a developer or publisher charging for stuff they've made. If the market doesn't want it, that message will be delivered. Bethesda learned from the Oblivion horse-armor brouhaha, and they altered their approach accordingly.

But the cheat code analog doesn't work for me. EA is making a play for casual gamers across the spectrum of their products. Most people new to games don't even know what a cheat code is. The very concept is a relic of old-school gaming, as is the progress/unlock mechanism that dates back to the arcades.

I think EA is looking forward by offering new gamers a familiar option they immediately understand. If you'd like to skip all the unlocking stuff, give us $2.25 and we'll open up all the courses for you right away. Are these gamers too stupid to learn how to enter a cheat code? Of course not. EA is saying we're not going to do that anymore. Gamers steeped in game culture may miss cheat codes, but no one else will. That's EA's bet anyway.

But why charge for it? Why not just add an "unlock all courses" menu option? Because doing so would destroy the balance I described above. A simple menu unlock devalues the effort of earning it. Attaching a monetary amount, even a small one, and going outside the game to download the content clearly separates this player from the one who has unlocked content from inside the game through his own efforts. As ridiculous as that may sound, I think it's a compelling difference.

We perceive value psychologically (see Xbox 360 Achievements). Games with additional content not immediately available to the player have made that content valuable. Hackers try to get at the stuff for this very reason. Cheat codes are so called because getting something of value without earning it feels like cheating. In my view, it makes sense, if you're EA, to charge for something players consider valuable...even when you've created that value by locking content.

And, of course, no one is putting a gun to your head. If you want the Tiger Woods courses or other DLC for free, play the game and unlock them yourself. No additional content is DLC-exclusive, aside from an additional course not on the disc.

So that's my best shot, Nels. Despite my tone of certainty, I'm aware there are many salient arguments against for-pay DLC. Consider this my attempt to build one side of a case. I'm sure you and others will help me see more complexity than I've acknowledged here.

Teach me to play


Games must be extraordinarily effective teachers. The learning window opens briefly. If the player cannot quickly grasp what the game expects or enables him to do, that window slams shut and it's game over. To a classroom teacher, that's an unreasonable condition. But to a game designer, it's just another day in the cubicle. If you fail to quickly reach that impatient player (age 8-80 in all possible demographic configurations) the fabulous curriculum you spent 3 years of your life building will be rejected by your student...and you're the one that gets the "F".

Lately, I find myself paying special attention to the teaching strategies game designers employ, particularly among recent games I've played. Clearly, game designers reject a one-size-fits-all approach, and that's because they understand the importance of pedagogy. That word may not get much play among designers, but it's a term teachers bandy about a lot. Terminology aside, we both make vital use of it.

Pedagogy is the teaching method chosen for the task at hand: teaching tailored to the subject and situation. Pedagogy is all about strategy, implementation, and assessment - make-or-break procedures that good teachers and game designers understand instinctively. The kid in the back of the room who hates science is no different, really, from the mom who loads the disc of a game she's never played into a console. You've got about 15 minutes to grab them and convince them they can succeed. You'd better make the most of it.

How do games teach us to play them? I won't try to account for every method; instead, I'll offer snapshots of 5 recent games, each utilizing a different strategy. I'm not suggesting one approach is superior to another, as they're all case-specific. But I do think some tutorials are more elegant or naturally embedded than others, and I'll try to explain why below.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 - The Lecturer
Tigerwoods Annually-released sports games assume you already understand the sport, so teaching focuses on controls and new features from last year's edition. The Tiger Woods franchise has improved its teaching over the years (gone is the mandatory "this is how you swing" tutorial), but the game still relies on a primitive lecture/practice/exam pedagogy. Golf game veterans will require no help, but for those who have never played console golf, the game offers a series of video tutorials demonstrating how to swing, chip, putt, etc. The player is expected to passively watch and learn from these tutorials, then take those lessons to the practice range, and finally to the course. Classic old-school sender-receiver lecture, followed by studying and practicing for the final exam. For a long-running franchise like Tiger Woods, this may be good enough, but it's hardly what I'd call imaginative or user-friendly. Recent editions of Madden Football have been far more clever and innovative in this regard.

Punch-Out! - The Foreign Language Teacher
Punch-Out!! The new Punch-Out! (like its NES predecessor) teaches the player how to succeed without tutorials or how-to videos. Instead, you slowly and methodically proceed through a series of pattern-recognition challenges keyed by visual cues. When the pattern is deciphered, the puzzle is unlocked and victory assured. Each fight is its own unique ruleset. Thus, until he is understood, your opponent remains inscrutible, and try/fail/retry is your best teacher. In this way, Punch-Out! functions pedagogically like a language course. You begin with simple grammar and syntax and gradually move to tougher challenges, retaining what you've learned along the way. At its most difficult setting, Punch-Out! requires the precision and immediate responsiveness of a conversation with a native speaker. The rules you've learned are all there, but they're fluid, and you don't have time to stop and think about them.

InFamous - The Handholding Mentor
Infamous-cover InFamous relies on a teaching strategy found in many recent games: embedding a "how to play this game" tutorial into the opening stage. Using a variety of techniques - on-screen visual prompts, camera swings to target destinations, voice-over instruction via handheld device, camera freezes to introduce enemies, sidekick-assigned information delivery, etc. - InFamous leverages all its resources to walk the player through its learning phase, attempting all the while to cover its tracks. Some elements work better than others in this regard. Cole zapping batteries on the roof or chasing Zeke through a poorly disguised city travelogue are less successful than learning to climb the tower to release food, for example. InFamous wants you to learn without making you too aware you're a student. It's awkward and heavy-handed at times, but it sure beats a "this is how you zap" tutorial.

If you want to see "Handholding Mentor" done to perfection, play Portal.

Zeno Clash - The Guru
Zenoclash I have more to say about this game, but for now I'll focus briefly on its teaching system. Like other first-person combat games (Zeno Clash is both brawler and shooter), the player is greeted by a sensai-like character charged with teaching you how to fight. These sequences are generally followed by tutorial battles in which each just-learned skill is put to the test. The guru is a tough taskmaster, insisting on judgment, precision, and timing. Mistakes are punished severely and the player sometimes berated for failure. Eventual success is deemed both a technical and spiritual victory. Much more can be said about Zeno Clash's unique take on The Guru, but to avoid spoilers I'll leave it at that.

Blueberry Garden - The Open Classroom
Blueberry Blueberry Garden erases the boundaries separating play and teaching, discovery and learning. They all meld into one self-directed experience. The game offers no tutorial, no instructions, and no apparent objective. The purpose of the game and the mechanics enabling it must be discovered by the player. You must become your own teacher. While all this may seem a charming departure, do not mistake Blueberry Garden for an open-ended "zen game" because it isn't at all. It may cleverly deceive you into thinking otherwise, but trust me, the peaceful Open Classroom this garden represents has its own unique way of motivating its student. I'll return to Blueberry Garden in another post, but for now I'll simply urge you to hit Steam and plop down your $4.99 for this terrific indie game.

As I said, my list focuses on recent games I've played and is by no means comprehensive. I'm sure you've seen other teaching strategies used in many other games. If so, I'd love to hear about them.


Flu2 Hi everybody. Just a quick post to apologize for not posting since Monday. We've been hit with a flu bug that's worked its way through my family sparing none of us. I'm back on my feet today and hope to have a post up very soon.

The flu ain't fun, but it does clear the decks for uninterrupted gaming sessions, and I've been taking full advantage. I look forward to sharing with you what I've been playing, including a couple of off-the-beaten path games I think you'll find interesting.

As always, thanks very much for reading my blog.

Time to share

Sharing If you're serious about games, chances are you've got a bunch of them stacked, shelved or strewn somewhere nearby. How long have they been sitting there? If you're completely honest with yourself, what are the chances you'll play one any time soon?

Looking over my shoulder at this moment, I see a dusty Diablo Battle Chest box staring at me - the original Diablo, Diablo II, and Lord of Destruction expansion all ready for action. I see Kirby Canvas Curse and Picross for DS; I see Lumines and Gitaroo Man for PSP; I see GBA games, PS2 games, Xbox games, and row after row of Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 games. All just sitting there, and I'm not playing them. What's wrong with this picture?

Maybe your habits are different, but many gamers I know tend to be hoarders. We derive a certain satisfaction from our collections, knowing we can play any game at any time we choose. We're archivists, of sorts, and we've spent years building our libraries. But for most us, the idea of playing those games is more compelling than actually playing them. I'm proud to have Lunar Knights in my collection, but I have no interest in playing it again. Maybe, someday...

We should put our collections to better use. We should share our games with people who can enjoy them right now. If I could summon some sort of game system doppler device, I'll bet it would locate thousands of consoles and handhelds within a 1-mile radius of me, many in the homes of folks who can't afford to buy video games anymore. I think my games would be happier there than on my shelf.

Games aren't consumables, I'm not disadvantaged by parting with a game for a few weeks while someone else enjoys it. Barring misuse, Knights of the Old Republic delivers no less joy if the disc has been used by ten players instead of one. Maybe sharing can even enhance the pleasure of playing it.

Think of it another way. Sharing is a great way to introduce casual or non-discriminating gamers to excellent titles they've never heard of. This is your chance to show the Wii Sports family next door how much fun games like Zack and Wiki, Ōkami, and de Blob can be. Go ahead, raise the bar. Share the love. Soon your neighbors will be deciphering The Path and reading Brainy Gamer!!

I don't need to tell you that times are hard for lots of people these days. Some areas in my state are facing 30% unemployment rates with more layoffs to come. Sharing a video game may seem like a pointless gesture to a family struggling to put food on the table, but believe me, it's not. An offer to help, even a modest one, can be a welcome reminder that someone cares. When a single mom working third shift brings home a borrowed copy of Burnout, her kids won't care where it came from, and you won't miss it on your shelf.

Let's stop hoarding and start sharing.

Drake's serial adventure

Flash_Gordon2           Uncharted_Drake's_Fortune

I completed a third playthrough of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune yesterday and savored it every bit as much as the first. I rarely revisit games - it seems there's always another must-play title vying for my attention - but Uncharted delivers such pure gaming bliss that I decided to take another ride.

Uncharted is the rare cinematic game that makes a virtue of its reliance on cinematic conventions. Game reviewers tend to use familiar genre terms to describe Uncharted: action-adventure; Lara Croft-style 3D platformer; 3rd-person shooter.

While these are apt descriptions of Uncharted's gameplay mix, stylistically Uncharted owes its greatest debt to the Republic Pictures serials of the 30s and 40s (The Lost Jungle, Zorro Rides Again, Flash Gordon) - rousing adventures that alternated action sequences with narrative intrigue in roughly the same fashion as Uncharted - complete with screen wipes, episodic chapters, and (literally) cliffhanger suspense. All present and accounted for in Naughty Dog's stylish homage.

Likewise, Uncharted's cast of characters is pulled right out of the old western/sci-fi serial playbook [1]:

  • The hero - Nathan Drake
  • The saddle pal or sidekick - Elena, in this case also the romantic interest
  • The brains heavy - Gabriel Roman
  • The action heavy - Atoq Navarro
  • The oldtimer - Victor "Sully" Sullivan

George Lucas famously pastiched these old serials in his Star Wars films, as well as in his screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but these films move slower and contain more ponderous exposition than their Republic forerunners. Stylistically, Uncharted is a more direct link to those ripping yarns of old, albeit with a modern sardonic sensibility. As a cynical disinterested hero, Nathan Drake probably owes more to Indiana Jones than Flash Gordon. But unless you blow through the game in a single sitting, Uncharted plays like a ludic version of pulp serial fiction doled out in short action-packed episodes.

If you commit to building a cinematic game, you need to make good on that promise across the board. That means a satisfying story, solid performances, a deft directorial hand, an evocative score, and well-timed cutscenes that enhance the adventure and make taking control away from the player feel like a gift, rather than a crutch.

Uncharted meets those challenges admirably well, its cinematic style well-suited to an episodic treasure hunt adventure delivered in a 3rd-person perspective. The game's storyboarding, scripting, and recording sessions were integrated into the development process from the beginning, enabling the actors and Game Director Amy Hennig to rehearse, improvise, collaborate, and revise.

I've written often about voice acting (ad naseum some may say), so I won't revisit the topic here. But compare Nolan North's subtle and organic performance in this game to his work in the more recent Prince of Persia, and you will appreciate the wisdom of Naughty Dog's methods.

Uncharted manages to seamlessly weave in and out of its gameplay sequences, building momentum as the game progresses and enabling the player to deploy its full arsenal of platforming maneuvers and cover system gunplay. This playthrough made me especially appreciate the game's clean and streamlined interface. No HUD, no menu or inventory screens; when Drake loses health the screen blurs and the colors desaturate.

Speaking of color, this game is a welcome respite from the drab browns and grays of nearly every other shooter released around the same time. Graphically, the game still looks terrific, especially its fluid character animations and facial expressions. inFAMOUS could have taken a cue from Uncharted in this regard, as could many other recent games. The dynamic lighting and real-time shadows are employed to excellent effect as well, especially in the jungle sequences. I'm not a graphics nut, but loading up Uncharted after months of other games reminds me just how good this game looks and controls. Uncharted may shine most brighly as a platformer, but it's no slouch as a smooth-controlling shooter.

Much of Uncharted's success can be traced to its hero, Nathan Drake - a regular guy with no special powers or skills (well, he is a pretty good climber). Nate's ordinariness helps explain the game's overarching structure. Nate is basically in it for the ride, tracking a story he does not control, figuring it out as he goes along. In this way, Uncharted's linear narrative makes perfect sense. This isn't a sandbox experience because Nate isn't driving the events forward. He's doing his best to keep up, angling for an edge wherever he can find one.

I'm not crazy about games that lean on the language of film, and I'm leery of strictly linear narrative games. Uncharted reminds me that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. ;-)

Uncharted has that special joie de vivre that great games possess. It isn't perfect. The puzzles are weak; the collecting is pointless, and the interiors (e.g. the monastery tunnels) are less interesting than the jungle locales. But the pacing is spot-on. Elena is fun to hang around with for nine hours. Climbing, jumping, and vertical pathfinding never lose their appeal. Uncharted pins you in your seat and delivers a thrill ride even Flash Gordon would envy.

Note: I gave short shrift in this post to Greg Edmonson's terrific score. I highly recommend this article if you'd like to know more about his work on Uncharted.

Flashes of light


In this post I'm distilling some of the ideas and conversations that emerged from the Games for Change Festival last week. By highlighting them in this way, I hope you'll be able to zero in on the ones that interest you. To avoid overwhelming you (believe me, I was plenty overwhelmed by the end of the festival), I'll spread these out over two posts. Here's part 1:

Keynote Address – Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times

"I spend a lot of my time trying to get Americans to care about issues far away from them. Journalists are very bad at this. Toothpaste advertisers are much more successful than humanitarians at getting their message out and influencing behavior. We make intellectual arguments focusing on data which is mostly about large numbers. This doesn't work."

"These stories must be made personal. The moment you classify victims beyond one, you get diminished results. We are hard-wired to care about the individual. If you ask people to behave based on rational argument, you will succeed less than if you're able to elicit empathy for a single individual. A game can do this very effectively."

"My generation thought the best way to address social issues was to protest. Now we see that it's better to be creative, to make things and do things. Creative entrepreneurship is more effective at solving problems."

  • Games create an entry point for people getting involved.

  • There is resistance to accepting games as a means of reaching people. Journalism and education are resistant to accepting them because they're not seen as serious. The only way to counter this is to prove what we're doing really works.

  • One of the barriers is that these issues are complicated. You need to have nuance, but you also need accessibility. A well designed game can strike this balance.

  • Product placement raises awareness of commercial products in film and television. We should focus on "cause placement" in popular commercial games.

  • We have a very mixed record of success in making a difference. But we have a nearly perfect record helping ourselves through these efforts. Human happiness is tied to a sense of feeling valuable and connected. Connecting to a cause larger than oneself is a direct road to happiness and fulfillment, and psychological studies prove this.

  • G4C is executive producing an unannounced game with Kristof. Eric Zimmerman and Dandelion are developing the game. It's an RPG, but no other details were provided, aside from Kristof's "It takes the far away and makes it local and immediate."

Research hits the Road: Games and Civic Engagement - Joseph Kahne, Mills College

Kahne was a lead investigator on Teens, Video Games, and Civics study, Pew Internet & American Life Project, (2008).

"We see a potential for games to impact young people for good, but the dominant discourse has focused solely on the shortcomings and dangers of video games. Our study aimed to provide data that could speak to this debate. We learned that many of the assumptions people make are wildly wrong."

  • National survey of 1100 students, age 12-17:
    • 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.
    • 50% of teens played games “yesterday.”
    • 86% of teens play on a console like the Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii.
    • 73% play games on a desktop or a laptop computer.
    • 60% use a portable gaming device like a Sony PlayStation Portable, a Nintendo DS,
      or a Game Boy.
    • 48% use a cell phone or handheld organizer to play games.
    • Fully 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games.
  •  5 popular myths
    1. Video games are violent. In fact, kids play 14 different genres of games, most of them non-violent.
    2. Many boys play only violent video games. There is no evidence of this. 80% of boys play at least 5 different genres of games. Very few focus only on one genre.
    3. Game play isolates youth. The study data refutes this.
    4. The game defines the experience. In fact the player is much more pivotal in defining how games are played.
    5. There is a digital divide when it comes to different groups' video game play. While kids in affluent schools have more opportunity for civic and other engagements (big inequities here); with video games there is no evidence of difference among social, economic, racial, or ethnic groups. They all play video games in similar percentages.
  • Core Finding: Video games have civic potential, but not all games. Overall, playing games in general has a modest effect on students' civic engagement, but teens who take part in social interaction related to the game, such as playing together with friends, commenting on websites or contributing to discussion boards, are significantly more engaged civically and politically.
  • "If the question is [which is more influential] parents or video games, I'd choose parents every time. Kids who have parents who nurture their kids' interests succeed. Parents should spend less time worrying about their kids playing games and more time teaching their kids how to be civically engaged. Playing video games has little impact on this either way."

    Suzanne Seggerman, founder of Games for Change

    Games for positive social change are gaining traction.

    • 3 sessions devoted to the subject at this year's GDC, all well attended. Mainstream developers are growing more interested in the topic, as evidenced by their attendance at the festival.

    • Growing body of research debunks popular myths about video games and suggests they can have a profoundly positive effect on people.

    • Media coverage and public awareness of indie and other non-mainstream games (Flower, Braid, Darfur is Dying, etc.) is growing.

    • Despite a tough economy, attendance at the conference remains high. This is the first year speakers were not offered honoraria, and all of them agreed to participate anyway.

    I'll return next time with wisdom from the young and old: a teenage gamer with strong opinions about serious games; and a fireside chate with a couple of rascally sages.