Games

High Noon for Shooters

Searchersethan31   Max_Payne_3_-_1

"It's abundantly clear that we're living in the age of the shooter. The category dominates sales charts...gripping audiences with its versatility. The stories we remember most end up being told down the barrel of a gun." --GameTrailers

For over a decade - beginning in 1949 and ending in the mid-1960s - Westerns ruled the small screen. In 1959, 26 Westerns aired each week during prime-time. In March of that year, eight of the top ten shows were Westerns.

The same period was also the golden age of Hollywood Westerns (The Searchers, Shane, High Noon, Rio Bravo) with many of America’s greatest filmmakers producing their best work in the genre: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, William Wyler, among others.

But it didn’t last. History rarely offers a precise road map, but it can sometimes point us in a useful direction. The decline of the Western - the causes of its near-demise, and its reemergence in other guises - are worth noting because I believe shooter games are on a similar trajectory. It will be 1959 at E3 next week, and we will find ourselves awash in barely distinguishable shooters. But it won’t last. It can’t last, and that’s a good and necessary thing.

Westerns began to disappear in the late 1960s for reasons relevant to modern game developers: 1) Genre fatigue and homologous products; 2) High cost of production; 3) Public outcry over violence; 4) Narrow target audience.

Each of these factors apply to contemporary shooter games, but the most threatening is the mind-numbing sameness of these games. We’ve reached a saturation point where the dismissive cliché has become a valid claim: they all look the same. When a genre sustains itself by promoting minor tweaks as revolutionary features - and its hardcore fans claim ownership that typically resists change - death looms.

It’s worth noting, however, that death doesn’t necessarily mean disappearance. Gunsmoke, TV’s longest-running prime-time drama, died somewhere around 1965...and ran for another decade. It’s also worth noting that CBS received many letters from fans who opposed the series’ transition to color in 1966, claiming it would ruin the show’s rustic nature. Fanboys defending the realm are nothing new.

"We ask ourselves: if there wasn’t anyone to shoot in the game, could it still be fun?" --Jason Vandenberghe, Narrative Director, Far Cry 3

Want more evidence shooter games are mired in similitude? Here are publisher-penned descriptions of key features contained in their games, all released or forthcoming this year. See if you can identify the games. (Names and titles are xx’d out)

  1. “QUAD-WIELDING CHAOS - Slash, grab, and throw objects and enemies...while simultaneously firing two weapons, adding a new dimension to the FPS category.”

  2. “From automatics to handguns to rifles and explosives, XX wields (and dual-wields) a wide range of high-powered weaponry in both single player and multiplayer. XX provides devastating firepower for any and all situations that call for decisive and punishing action.”

  3. “Alternate Aiming Perspectives — Players can choose the shooting style that suits them with the ability to alternate between first and third person views to best pinpoint enemies"

  4. “Pervasive Environmental Destruction - XX has been specifically designed to allow for maximum destructibility using the “Havok Destruction” module. Blast through the environments, target your enemies’ cover blasting it to bits or even knock down overhead objects to crush the enemy below."

  5. "Blast your way in and utilize your military grade DART6 chip to breach enemies and the environment as you battle for market dominance and your life. Some takeovers are more hostile than others.”

  6. "50 WEAPONS, ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES - Get unlimited access to the most advanced arsenal in the world, with over 50 weapons including highly customizable assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Choose from a wide variety of grenades to suit your mission objectives and context."

"When I remember Half-Life 2 I don't remember just shooting things, I remember moments, like the escape from the boat, or crossing the bridge, or investigating the farm or invading the prison." --4A Games’ Huw Beynon on the forthcoming Metro 2033: Last Light.1

So what happens when 1959 ends? Again, history could prove prophetic. The second wave of Western filmmakers (Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood) turned our deep familiarity with the genre in on itself, addressing existential questions and examining the nature of violence. These films were radical departures from the Hollywood formula, not because they rejected the familiar settings or the guns or the hero/villain dichotomy, but because they made these the very subjects of their scrutiny.

Marston

This is precisely where Rockstar has tried, but mostly failed, to go with its recent genre-inspired games. Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire contain the stylistic trappings of their filmic influences, but little of the complexity. To be fair, the interactive dimension goes a long way toward bridging this gap, and RDR, especially, makes inhabiting John Marston feel more personal than any film could hope to do. 

But it’s Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 that most painfully illustrates the shooter ball and chain. I’ve played many games I wish had skippable cutscenes. Max Payne 3 is the first to make me long for skippable action. Buried under hours of conventional designer-charted gunfights is a story with genuine noir sensibility, not merely cosmetic style. Rockstar jettisoned the campy (and easier to manage) noir-esque style of the previous Max Payne games in favor of something far more Robert Mitchum. Max takes weary self-loathing to new depths.

Consequently, it’s heartbreaking to see a character as potentially compelling as Max dropped off at a “shithole” hotel in the 3rd Act and instructed to “clear the place out” as if it was essential to the narrative. It isn’t, and I know it, Rockstar knows it...we all know it. The Imperial Palace Hotel is just another gunplay funhouse with waves of baddies for me to defeat. What a shame and what a waste.

Max Payne 3 is a game devastatingly at war with itself. All its smart, gutsy, genre-savvy ideas are wiped out in a bulletstorm of shooter game orthodoxy.

It’s High Noon for shooters, or as a certain Minnesota cowboy would say, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”


Games described above: 1. The Darkness 2, 2. Max Payne 3, 3. Resident Evil Revelations, 4. Inversion, 5. Syndicate, 6. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier


Comfy conditioning chamber

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Diablo 3 is exactly the kind of game I should hate. Blizzard’s latest dungeon-crawling loot-fest relies on a checklist of design elements that typically drive me screaming into the night:

  • Derivative design
    We can’t accuse Blizzard of stealing from itself, but Diablo 3 is an essentially conservative game. It iterates on its predecessors in obvious ways - graphics, UI, streamlined path to leveling up, etc. - but in most of the ways that matter, Diablo 3 is a dressed up version of Diablo 2.

  • Repetitive play
    Click-Loot-Upgrade-Repeat. Diablo 3’s repetitiveness is woven through its design on both micro and macro levels. Everything you do in this game, you do over and over. Coins spill, and you pick them up. Every time. Stimulus. Operanda. Reinforcement. Skinner is grinning.

  • Sententious “lore” with no meaningful impact on gameplay.
    Diablo 3 throws a few winks at the player, but it doesn’t stray far from threadbare fantasy tropes. For the umpteenth time we must locate soulstones, defeat demon lords, assemble shattered swords - all to defeat Eeeviiil. I’m a narrative-loving player, but even I find myself challenged to pay attention to the arch codswallop this game dispenses.
  • Screen Shot 2012-05-22 at 9.57.34 AMChoking feedback loops
    When designers talk about gluing players to games, they inevitably reference the Diablo series and its effective feedback loops. Such loops occur when a player takes an action and receives information about that action, which in turn encourages the player to alter his choices or behavior the next time that action is performed. I appreciate the gamey-ness of this system, but Diablo 3’s feedback loops are so embedded into its design that they’re in my face at every turn, and many of them feel only cosmetically significant. I like meaningful choices, but this game taps me on the shoulder with the frequency of a 4-year-old in the toy aisle at Target.

  • DRM handcuffs
    Developers should not constrain where and when I can play my game. Lots of folks have complained about this, so I won’t rehash the argument here. If I want to play Diablo 3 solo, I shouldn’t be required to login to a developer’s server and maintain that connection throughout my play session…unless the game has a crucial reason for doing so that benefits me. So far, I can’t discern such a reason. A game that requires twitch reflexes should not suffer from lag that prevents me from playing it properly. In other words, it should not make me die.

So... A funny thing happened on my way to hating Diablo 3. It hooked me. Deep. Here I am, an hour into Act II, and the game is playing me as much as I’m playing it, like all the best games do. I play Diablo 3 when I should be doing other things. Like sleeping. I think about it when I should be paying attention to other things. Like driving. Last night I dreamed about my childhood backyard…in isometric view.

Diablo 3 overrides all my misgivings because it’s just so damned much fun. We often decry the game industry’s stubborn unwillingness to evolve, dishing out the same old stuff over and over. Sometimes, however, the same old stuff - and Diablo 3 is unmistakably SOS - hits the mark so squarely and elegantly that it quenches a thirst I forgot I had.

It is retro gaming without the stench of lazy design “retro” too often signifies. Diablo has always been retro (remember Wizardry, folks?), but the series has consistently looked forward too, mechanically and aesthetically. Watch Blizzard’s Christian Lichtner talk about Diablo 3’s art design at this year’s GDC to see how Blizzard’s artists developed a philosophy for the game’s visuals that carefully blended old and new.

The game doles out a skill or special trinket every time you level up. Loot is more varied, the environments are more visually stimulating, and the monsters are more interesting and fun to beat than in Diablo 2. Killing twelve enemies at once with one kick-ass spell never gets old. The music is beautifully evocative, and the character animations make the old Diablo games look, well, very old. If you experience any initial concerns about Diablo 3 being too easy or predictable, hang on until Act II. Trust me, things change.

I drank a bottle of Coca-Cola the other day. Wow. That is some good SOS. I remember now why I used to enjoy it so much. I don't drink soda any more, and I don’t plan to fill my refrigerator with Cokes, but I’m glad it’s still there when I’m thirsty for it.

Not every successful developer operates so conservatively. In my next post, I’ll discuss a game by another AAA studio bent on pushing the design envelope in ways Blizzard can’t or won’t. If Blizzard is the Ronald Reagan of developers, this studio is the industry’s Ted Kennedy. I hope you'll stay tuned.


Uncharted: Golden Abyss

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I consider myself one of the biggest Uncharted fans on the planet. More than any other series, these globe-trekking adventure games embrace the convergence of film and video games that many of us enjoy. While we may quibble about the aesthetic purity of games that rely on the language of another medium to convey meaning, I say there’s plenty of room in the interactive space for cinematic storytelling, cutscenes, and mo-capped performances - especially when they’re delivered with the attention to detail that’s become the hallmark of a Naughty Dog production.

Given Uncharted’s popularity and high critical regard, it’s no surprise that Sony made sure a new Uncharted game, Golden Abyss, accompanied the launch of its new Vita handheld system. Sony chose its in-house Bend Studio (best known for the Syphon Filter series) to develop the game, and Bend produced a game that looks, sounds, and plays very much like its console brethren.

“I think it would have been impossible for us to achieve that sort of Uncharted look and feel without their [Naughty Dog’s] help. They gave us their complete library to access for Uncharted 1 and 2, including all the mo-cap that they had done… That library of Drake animation represents six, seven years’ worth of work, thousands and thousands of animations, and there’s no way a studio of our size could have done it at that level of quality by ourselves.” –John Garvin, Golden Abyss writer and director

Relying on Naughty Dog assets may have helped Bend produce a game that looks and feels like an Uncharted game, but one pivotal element failed to make the leap from console to handheld: smart, character-focused writing. Amy Hennig, who penned all the previous Uncharted games, is missing from the credits of this game, and her absence is sorely felt.

In place of the warmth and sharp-witted repartee we’ve grown accustomed to between Sully and Drake - the best-written and best-developed duo in the history of narrative games - Golden Abyss introduces a fast-talking Joe Pesci clone named Dante, and the banter between him and Drake treads the tiresome “¿Qué es más macho” buddy banter worn thin by dozens of other games and films. Here’s a sampling:

Drake: (Referring to Dante’s sea turtle shoes) Those are fancy. They sell men’s shoes where you got those?


Drake: So now you’re a rock climber. This I gotta see.
Dante: Just don’t stare at my ass, and try to keep up.


Dante: (referring to a statue Drake is rubbing with charcoal) Don’t rub too hard. They’re gonna get excited.
Drake: Whooh. Jealous?


Dante: (climbing) Feel how worn these handholds are? What do you think? Three thousand years old? Four?
Drake: They feel like the ones at Mesa Verda. Remember? You were so scared. I thought you were gonna cry.
Dante: That was different. It was dark, it was twice as high, and I had a bag of pottery shards strapped to my back.
Drake: I saw tears.

This kind of misogyny-tinged dialogue may help fill the gaps between action set-pieces, but it does nothing to illuminate character the way Hennig’s dialogue so often does. When Sully finally arrives on the scene later in the game, he serves his purpose advancing the plot, but his dialogue with Drake lacks the familiar sharpness of Hennig’s pen.

More damaging than Dante, however, is the meager impact of Drake’s new love interest, Marisa Chase. She initially appears to be the kind of savvy, self-sufficient woman the Uncharted games have always featured, but Chase is no Chloe or Elena. Her sole function in the first half of the game is to be rescued repeatedly by Drake or wait for him as he climbs his way out of one problem after another.

When she finally reveals to Drake her long-withheld backstory, it feels more like a plot pivot than a character sharing a secret. Later in the game, Chase’s “will she or won’t she” dilemma about using violence adds a bit of drama to story, but she has had so little to do and makes so slight an impact on Drake by that point, the resonance of her decision is greatly diminished.

Hennig’s women push Drake, forcing him to consider his actions and his reasons for taking them. They complicate his life in dramatically useful ways, and their uneasy relationship with each other adds complexity to the story that’s sadly lacking in Golden Abyss. Chloe and Elena are women fully integrated into the Uncharted narrative and its protagonist’s life. Chase appears to be fashioned after them, but she functions more like a plot device than a developed character. She’s the granddaughter of a man whom the game is more interested in than her.

It would be easy to dismiss Uncharted: Golden Abyss as a glorified tech demo for the PS Vita. It’s certainly true that the touchscreen and gryo-sensor control options feels less intuitive (and often more irritating) than their simple button-press alternatives. Unlike Mario 64 or Wii Sports, which cleverly exploited hardware advancement as integrated game design, nearly all the Vita-specific additions to Golden Abyss feel tacked on.

But the Vita is a flashy new piece of kit, and Sony can hardly be blamed for developing a game that shows players all the cool new stuff it can do. I grow weary of swiping my finger across the screen when prompted, but most of the time I can play the game the way I want to play it.

What I can’t do is care enough about this Uncharted’s characters and story to make all the shooting, platforming, and hidden object hunting feel worthwhile. In the end, this game ironically proves Naughty Dog’s central thesis to be correct. Nathan Drake’s monkey-like climbing (except over objects he mysteriously can’t climb…like boxes), hordes of massacred victims, and uncanny ability to discover complex mechanical contraptions built by primitive civilizations - none of it makes any sense, really.

But it’s all so much fun wrapped inside a well-spun yarn with snappy dialogue, exotic locales, and sharply drawn characters we’ve come to know and love. Sadly, Golden Abyss is an Uncharted game delivered in a plain vanilla wrapper.


Easy does it harder

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If you’ve played games for more than a decade, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed the ongoing evolution of the medium. Some see technology as the primary driver, and there’s no question games look and sound better than ever. The rising tide of tech has lifted all boats, making it possible for even a small team of developers to produce polished, sophisticated games indistinguishable from work produced by the big studios.

As a player, I appreciate HD, pixel shaders, and dynamic AI, but none has produced a major shift in my actual experience of playing games. While the impact of tech is undeniable, I see a far more consequential, and paradoxical, shift in my play experience: games are easier than ever to beat, but harder than ever to control.

Across consoles, genres, and mechanics, games have gone soft. With few exceptions, games offer less resistance to serious players and are more welcoming to casual newcomers. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing. Nintendo has recently incorporated “bail me out” features into nearly all its games, making it possible for less-skilled players to move past difficult levels. The evolution of this player-assist system illustrates the trajectory I’m describing.

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Nintendo introduced the “P-Wing” in Super Mario Bros 3, which allows Mario to fly for an unlimited amount of time, overcoming tough levels. If, however, Mario is hit while flying, he loses the power of the P-Wing. The player must still complete the level. In New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo offered an even easier path with the “Super Guide” - if a player dies eight times in a row, a green “!” block appears, and a system-controlled Luigi arrives to escort the player through the level. The Super Guide reappears in Donkey Kong Country Returns and also in Super Mario Galaxy 2 (where it’s called the “Cosmic Guide”).

Finally, in Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo takes it one step easier with “Assist Blocks” containing either an Invincibility Leaf or a P-wing. The Invincibility Leaf appears after Mario loses five lives in a single stage, rendering Mario invincible for the entire stage. If he loses 10 lives in a level, a P-Wing block appears, teleporting the player to the end of the level. Importantly, these items go into Mario’s inventory to be used when and where the player chooses.

Of course, these are optional, and players are free to ignore them. But it’s fair to say that recent Mario games, especially 3D Land, offer fewer stiff challenges to players than earlier SMB games, while still remaining fun to play. Other games in other genres illustrate a similar trajectory.

Among RPGs, two recent games employ different approaches to making things easier. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which I’m playing now) can be seen as a noob-friendly introduction to console RPGs. It’s got all the formulaic pieces in place, but offers them up with glowing “look here!” and “do this” hints, friendly AI, auto-targeting, and an accessible level-up system. Amalur is an action-RPG purposefully designed to welcome newcomers, but still deliver an expansive world, storyline, and dozens of sub-quests. Even its color palette seems to suggest, “Come on in, you’ll have fun!”

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Skyrim, on the other hand, eases the player’s experience through refinement of existing systems. Gameplay and progression may not be easier than in Oblivon (though I think they are), but everything, including combat, feels more fluid and easier to manage.

The attribute system, for example, has been overhauled. In Oblivion, points could be allocated to boost stats, but the benefits of this process were difficult to discern. Skyrim translates points into perks, which can be allocated to any attribute, and the outcomes of your choices are far more clear. Better maps, improved quest management, individualized skills - all refine Skyrim and make for a better and, yes, easier (defined here as less frustrating) experience.

Even the hardest of hard have gotten easier. Some may disagree, but I say Dark Souls is easier than its predecessor Demon’s Souls. More items, more spells, more gear don’t just mean “more stuff,” they also make it easier to progress. Black Phantoms drop better items, decreasing the need for grind to acquire rare gear. Elemental effects for weapons and upgradeable armor help too, and the game’s many shortcuts ease navigation. Dark Souls is still a tough game, but even this game isn’t exempt from the broad trajectory to easy. Or at least easier.

Even as games have gotten easier to beat or manage on a challenge level, they’ve also become more difficult to control. Experienced players tend not to see this because we’re accustomed to dealing with what games ask us to do. Complexity arrives incrementally, and veteran players accommodate additional elements of intricacy, barely noticing the changes.

Robert Boyd’s recent “The Complification of Zelda” illustrates how complexity creep has made its way into a series once lauded for its elegant controls. He states the problem clearly:

Some time ago, I played an indie…shooter with an obtuse control scheme. To mitigate the complexity of their controls, they displayed a picture of the controller on the screen...with information on what each button did. “How ridiculous is this!” I thought to myself... Zelda: Skyward Sword does the exact same thing in the default UI… If your game’s controls are so complicated that you feel the need to display the controller on screen at all times for fear of players forgetting how to play your game, YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!

Boyd goes on to demonstrate Skyward Sword’s use of nine individual buttons to control:

  • Confirm/Run/Pick Up
  • Use Item (Select Item when the button is held)
  • Items Menu
  • Pouch Use (Select Pouch Item when the button is held)
  • Map
  • Lock camera
  • First person mode/Divining
  • Help Button
  • Call Sword Spirit/Resynch controller/Call bird

And these are in addition to the motion controls requiring individual moves for:

  • Slice sword (angle varies depending on how you wave the controller)
  • Thrust sword
  • Charge Sword with sky power
  • Sword Spin attack
  • Sword finishing move
  • Draw shield/Shield Bash
  • Roll
366px-Using_the_Whip_(Skyward_Sword)

As a developer who introduced a new system (Wii) with the expressed purpose of easing player interaction with games and enabling more natural, intuitive control, it would seem they have lost their way.

Other games using standard controllers rely on similarly labyrinthine control schemes, insisting on prior experience. I offered to give my casual-gamer wife a shot at Amalur, thinking it may offer a more welcoming path to RPG goodness. When she noticed an item on the menu screen devoted to “Moves,” full of options and sub-options for controlling combat maneuvers, she handed me the controller and left the room.

Last year the Entertainment Software Association published a document called “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” It presented sales, demographic, and usage data to suggest the game industry is vital to the overall economy. While it’s certainly true that more people are playing games than ever, including women and seniors, unit sales of traditional console and computer games has stagnated, with only a modest increase since 2002 (224 million in ‘02, 232 million in ‘10).

What role do accessibility and complexity play in these numbers? Are we making traditional games easier in hopes of attracting players that will never come? When we make these games more welcoming to newcomers by decreasing difficulty, adding help systems, etc., are we focusing on the wrong things? Can a game like Amalur be too easy and too difficult at the same time? Does it make sense to design “easier games" if we aren’t really making them easier to play?


To dream again

Ahh, do you not feel the grand romance of the wide open skies? The roaring invitation of the wind? The soft call of the clouds? You are a boring, boring creature.  --Willi, the Bird-Man in Wind Waker

LinkWhy is every new Legend of Zelda my drop-everything game? Why, after 25 years of playing essentially the same game over and over, does my heart race with excitement at the arrival of a new one? And, importantly, why am I so willing to overlook its obvious flaws?

Zelda Blind Spot
Why does my Zelda blind spot extend even to its designers’ stubborn unwillingness to update outmoded systems of character interaction and item discovery? Why must I be endlessly reminded that red rupees are worth twenty? How many times must I be exhorted “Don’t spend it all in one place!” Why must every shop owner deliver the same introductory spiel every time I engage them? The Legend of Zelda is the premier adventure series in the history of video games. Couldn’t somebody at Nintendo knock out a few more animations and lines of dialogue?

My blind spot obscures even more issues. Why, after nearly 15 years of navigating a 3D space, is it still so hard to get Link facing in the right direction to move a block or open a chest? When, after giving us so many cool gadgets and weapons to control, will Mr. Aonuma finally allow the player to control the simple action of making Link jump? And when will I - a grizzled veteran of Zelda games dating back to the original - finally be given the option to skip, or at least condense, the interminable hand-holding series of tutorials at the beginning of every game?

I ask these questions facing a paradoxical reality: I love these games. The latest Zelda release, Skyward Sword, was my favorite game of 2011. Not the best game and certainly not the most innovative, but nevertheless the game that delighted me more than any other.

How to make sense of this? I suppose I could chalk it up to nostalgia, but that word doesn’t quite characterize my experience. It’s easy to find familiar moments that resonate through the franchise. Link waking up at the outset. Link opening a treasure chest. The stirring moment when Link embarks on his adventure.

Hyrulian Tales
Despite their formal similarities, it would be a mistake to see these moments as cut-and-pasted from one game to the next. They are purposeful narrative motifs that connect Link to each of his previous incarnations. They resonate because they operate within a ritual storytelling tradition more akin to fairytale than epic poetry.

Critics often describe Legend of Zelda games as classic Hero Journeys in the tradition of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. While it’s easy to find connections here - the call to adventure, supernatural aid, descent to underworld, etc. - I see more resonance in Zelda’s connections to Japanese folklore and, especially, the series’ deep roots in Shintoism.

Great_Deku_Tree_Artwork_(The_Wind_Waker)Link often enters a “Sacred Realm” (“Silent Realm” in Skyward Sword) where he encounters beings inflicted with suffering caused by Ganon’s corruption of the earth. All beings in nature suffer from this polluting force: spirits, trees, forest creatures, and humans alike. Link must set things right by healing the land, restoring harmony to humans and nature.

In essence, he must embrace the Shinto philosophy of humans and nature as one, and he must accept his pivotal role in Shintoism’s indigenous vision of Japan (Hyrule) as connected to its ancient past. Link is that link.

Zelda games touch me in ways other games simply don’t. They express a lighthearted spirit of adventure, tinged with melancholy. Link’s youthful naiveté gradually gives way to an awakening that can only emerge through trial and discovery. This recurring journey from child to adult requires Link to accept his own mortality. I like Dan Merrill’s description in his terrific essay “Immortal Childhood”:

[Zelda games] express what it means to live bound to the flow of time. They are stories about the beauty of mortality, the journey from childhood to adulthood and from life to death. They are about growing up and leaving behind the immortal playground of childhood, letting go of the familiar to venture out into the world that lies beyond.

Whimsy World
My attachment to these games is more than philosophical. Every time I enter the world of a Zelda game, I’m enveloped by a whimsical universe that’s always richer and deeper than it appears. Whimsy gets a bad rap. When games strain for it, the results are painful and embarrassing. The Zelda world is full of delightfully playful, mischievous, idiosyncratic characters, and they are all loved and all welcomed without judgment. Even the “evil” characters have something to tell us about suffering and regret.

My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose. --Ganondorf in Wind Waker

BeedleWhen you visit Beedle’s Airshop in Skyward Sword, Beedle is furiously pedaling a makeshift bicycle which turns the gears that power the propellers which keep his shop aloft. If you leave without buying anything, he stops Link at the door, berates him for adding weight to his vessel, and opens a trapdoor through which Link falls to the ground. It’s a silly surprise, but Beedle’s ridiculous contraption fully belongs in this world.

If you’re more curious (and Zelda games have always rewarded curiosity), you may decide to sleep in Beedle’s shop until night. If you do, Link will wake up on Beedle’s Island where the airship is parked at night. If you find Beedle at his campfire, he will reveal to Link that his shopkeeper persona is not his true identity. I won’t say more than that. Go talk to him yourself. Things are often different at night in Zelda games. Find Rupin the Gear Shop owner at his mother’s house after sunset. Once again, things aren’t always as they seem.

“The rising sun will eventually set, A newborn’s life will fade. From sun to moon, moon to sun… Give peaceful rest to the living dead.” — Inscription on Tomb Door in Ocarina of Time

Zelda games present a broader scope of humanity than other games. We see preschool children playing games, teenagers locked in petty arguments, young adults, middle-aged men and women; elderly figures foolish and wise. It is a world of misfits and eccentrics, and Link must messianically save them all.

At the end of Link’s Awakening, we discover that the idyllic paradise of Koholint Island is only a dream of the Wind Fish. Link must awaken the Wind Fish to complete his mission, but that awakening comes with a cost: Koholint Island and all its inhabitants will vanish, and Link will be cast into the ocean, adrift on a piece of his wrecked ship. “It be the nature of dreams to end,” the Wind Fish explains to Link.

Like another character on another island, we will yearn for the next great adventure.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.* –Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest


Before you go...

Bittrip-complete-titletreatment

It is better to be looked over than overlooked. –Mae West

So there you are, my gamer friend, gazing wistfully at that dusty white Wii that held so much promise when you brought it home five years ago. If only it had realized more of its potential. If only somebody had thought of a sensible online strategy. If only it had glowed blue more often.

Maybe you’ve reached the end of Skyward Sword and thought to yourself, “If this is the Wii’s swan song, at least the little guy went out on a high note.” But hold on there, friend. Don’t despair. I’ve got good news! Mario Party 9 is coming next March!! …Ah, sarcasm.

Before you relegate your Wii to doorstop status, may I suggest one more old-fashioned retail box game purchase? This one comes at a discount price (Amazon sells it for $25), and it’s actually six games for the price of one: Bit.Trip Complete.

If one Wii game, or in this case a series of terrific games, has been most unfairly overlooked by players, it’s the Bit.Trip series by developer Gaijin Games. While I’ve got you here, I’ll also mention Little King’s Story, A Boy and His Blob, and Excitebots, but all things considered, the Bit.Trip games are the most criminally neglected.

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Bit.Trip Complete collects all six Bit.Trip games: BEAT, CORE, VOID, RUNNER, FATE, and FLUX. It also includes a video gallery recounting the story of CommanderVideo, concept art, an audio gallery featuring fan remixes of the game’s original chiptunes, and a soundtrack sampler. All nice inclusions, but fairly standard stuff for game re-releases.

Happily, Bit.Trip Complete contains three other features that convinced me to take the plunge. Included on the disc are six actual letters to Bit.Trip fans written by the developers, explaining the symbolism behind each game. These commentaries illuminate, in a decidedly non-didactic manner, the designers’ surprisingly ambitious narrative goals for each Bit.Trip game. More on the “meaning” of Bit.Trip in a moment.

Bit.Trip Complete also features 20 new mini-levels, adding a significant amount of new content to the game. But the biggest reason many players will appreciate Complete is the addition of Easy and Hard difficulty levels. My only real complaint about the original games was that they were too unforgiving. BEAT, in particular, gave me fits, and only a tag-team sub-in from my son got me past the final stage. Complete’s Easy mode mercifully lowers the difficulty curve, while Hard mode delivers a motion-controlled flogging to anyone crazy enough to tackle it.

The Bit.Trip games deliver a clinic on the virtues of minimalism in design. When I saw them a few months ago at IndieCade, Gaijin founders Mike Roush and Alex Neuse discussed the challenge of pursuing a design vision defined by simplicity. Their presentation was originally called “Storytelling through Minimalism,” but at the last moment they changed it to “Storytelling through Symbolism,” which better captures how the Bit.Trip games convey meaning.

Homages to classic games can be found throughout the Bit.Trip games. BEAT is clearly inspired by PONG; RUNNER owes its existence to Moon Patrol. Roush and Neuse wanted to make “as close to a pure game as possible,” while opening up opportunities for narrative interpretation. They visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and studied Mark Rothko’s paintings, among other artists. They also found sonic inspiration from the chiptune scene, citing Bit Shifter and Anamanaguchi as key influences. Music is a fundamental element of the Bit.Trip design, both aesthetically and as a metronome for gameplay.

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Through six games released three months apart over nearly two years, Gaijin presented the story of CommanderVideo. “We wanted to tell a story, not just [release] arcade adventures… We wanted to tell a story of pre-birth to post-death,” Roush noted. “We needed to be able to tell our story in three interwoven ways: 1) Gameplay; 2) Music; 3) Art”

How many players seek or require a story in these retro-style arcade games? Why must we “interpret” them? Why can’t we just have fun playing them and overcoming their challenges? The wonderful thing about the Bit.Trip games is that they invite interpretation without requiring it. For many players, simply surviving to the end of a difficult level is engagement enough.

But Roush and Neuse were delighted by the overwhelming number of emails and online discussions scrutinizing CommanderVideo’s symbolic journey from life to death to rebirth. If you see CommanderVideo as an ethereal being who dreams of being corporeal - and then experiences the consequences of that transition - you’re on your way to accessing the Bit.Trip saga presented sequentially over the course of six games.

Give Bit.Trip Complete a try and support the work of designers trying something different…and familiar at the same time. Each game can also be downloaded individually via WiiWare. Bit.Trip BEAT is also available for PC/Mac and iOS.

Can you recommend other overlooked Wii games? Let me know about them in the comment section below.


Take 3 - Uncharted the Director

Drake

The history of narrative game design can be fairly summarized as an ongoing effort to enable the player. Games enable choice, strategic thinking, moral deliberation, mechanical mastery, etc., all designed to make the player feel smart, powerful, responsible, or otherwise connected to a world where the player’s actions and decisions matter. In one way or another, all the major game franchises aim at this same brass ring. Mass Effect, GTA, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, Fable, Fallout - each unfolds a story (apparently) driven forward by the player. Each enables the player to impact the world…or at least delivers an illusion of impact.

But not Uncharted. From its opening moments, Uncharted 3 establishes a cinematic sender-receiver relationship with the player. Advancing the story is the game’s prime directive, and it also functions as the player’s reward. The game presents a steady stream of prompts (timed button-presses) action challenges (climbing, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat), and puzzles, each requiring the proper response. Get it right, and you get more story. Get it wrong, and it’s rewind and try again.

In this way, the player activates story sequentially, bit by bit, not by choosing sides or navigating branching dialogue options, but by earning it like Mario coins. The Half-Life games work similarly (sans cutscenes), but the Uncharted series builds such pot-boiler suspense and character intrigue into its narratives that the player feels swept up in a globe-trotting page-turner that insists on steady progression. If I don’t keep going, who’s going to rescue Sully? Missing a jump means I’ve delayed the story, which somehow feels more consequential in these tightly-paced games. Cutscene as carrot; Rewind as stick.

In this ‘play the movie’ system, cinematic fidelity is paramount, and each game has raised the bar higher in this regard. Uncharted 3 retains the colorful adventure-movie look of the previous games, but this time the virtual camerawork has a Paul Thomas Anderson feel, relying heavily on constant-motion Steadicam cinematography. As cinema, Uncharted 3 feels at once old-school-Hollywood and art-house edgy. Pay attention to the “camera” in this early scene to see what I mean. It never stops moving.

So, if cinematic interactivity is Uncharted’s raison d’être, how does this affect the player’s experience? I believe an apt parallel can be found in the relationship between a lead actor and director on a film set, with the Uncharted player as actor and the Uncharted game as director. Playing Uncharted 3 is less about watching a film than shooting a film.

Uncharted-3-game-art_290The actor must hit his marks and deliver his performance within a tightly constrained set of parameters. Autonomy is secondary to precision in this environment. I may have my own ideas of how to ‘play’ a scene, but if my approach violates the director’s (or cinematographer’s or art director’s, etc.) plans for how the scene must be executed, we have a problem. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s simply the nature of filmmaking, and the Uncharted games rely heavily on this paradigm, both as presentation and as player experience.

Like a good movie actor, my job is to make what I’m told to do look like it was my idea all along. When I hit the triangle button to dodge a punch, or jump at just the right moments to escape a building crumbling beneath me, Drake looks fabulous doing it. When I deviate from that script or miss my mark, Drake dies in a pathetic rag-doll heap. Film actors quickly learn that a skillful performance matters, but nothing matters more than what the director (and editor) do with that work. A good director may redeem a bad performance; but a bad director usually makes everyone look bad. Uncharted 3 is a very good, but very prescriptive director.

Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked “Actors are cattle.” If you’ve watched a film being shot, especially on location, it’s a nasty, but mostly fair observation, at least in terms of what’s required to get film into the can. Hitchcock later amended his observation: “I never said all actors are cattle, what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.”

So, does Naughty Dog treat Uncharted players like cattle? Well...maybe Hitchcock’s notion that we should be treated as such isn’t far off the mark if we see mainstream narrative game design as a certain kind of cow-herding: moving a mass of players from point to point, keeping them fed and happy, and trying hard not to lose any strays. This is the general feeling I get from Uncharted 3. At the risk of issuing damning praise, I believe the game is a spectacular exercise in interactive cinema. No game comes closer to delivering a truly playable movie, with AAA production values and a craftsmanlike grasp of film language.

But the total experience falls short for me, not because Uncharted isn’t enough of a “game” or because it relies heavily on cutscenes. There are lots of ways to tell stories in video games, and Naughty Dog executes its way better than anyone else. I just wish this director trusted me a little more with my performance. I’ve worked with him (I could as easily say "her") three times now, and I think he's terrific. I love the studio, and I love the ethos. But I need a little more creative input now. I need to feel less like a cow and more like a collaborator.

RameseA couple of examples highlight my point. A pirate named Rameses attacks Nate in Yemen, knocking him out with a piece of wood. He then takes Nate prisoner, transports him to a dry dock, and tortures him for information. When Nate refuses to cooperate, Rameses replies, “Perhaps your friend Sully will be more grateful for his life,” and departs.

Later, Nate is re-captured by Rameses’ men, but Nate manages to escape, steal a gun from one of the pirates, and shoot Rameses in the chest...with no input or interaction from me. Hey, Mr. Director! I could have done that! Given Rameses' treatment of me earlier, it would have been a pleasure. Why couldn’t you trust me to take care of the job?

A few chapters later, Nate staggers through the Rub’ al Khali desert - lost, alone, and dying of thirst. This section of the game is reminiscent of the Nepalese village portion of Uncharted 2: a tonal and mechanical shift occurs, and the player is free to explore and make sense of this apparently incongruous section of the game. But unlike the village, the desert in Uncharted 3 directs me ways that confine and confound me.

I admire how the control system breaks down in this scene, making it difficult to manipulate a staggering, hallucinating Nate. But all too soon, the game extracts me from the situation and moves the narrative forward, long before I’m ready. I wish the game had trusted me to explore, even aimlessly, perhaps encountering hallucinations that tell me more about Drake’s obsessions and fears. It’s a missed opportunity for me as Nate to wander confused, disoriented, and face myself. I might have learned something here. You gave me a place and situation to do that, but you didn’t trust me enough to make that time of wandering meaningful. Forty days and nights might have been interesting…

I like the Uncharted games. I'll begin playing Skyrim tomorrow, and I'm guessing I'll like that too. I don't need one game to be like the other. Vive la différence! But I'm a restless actor. I’ll happily accept another gig as Nathan Drake if the director wants to cast me again. But let’s talk about how to make that next performance more valuable for me. I’m happy to let you run the show. I just need a little more room to breathe. Work with me here, ok? :-)


Joy in Mudville

  Skyrim

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. –Woody Allen

Gamers are a confounding lot. For a pack of people who like to play, we sure do seem miserable most of the time. We complain about review scores; we hate games journalism; we mercilessly pick at each other on forums; and we shake our heads sadly at projected dim futures for franchise X, developer X, or console manufacturer X. A newcomer to the ongoing “games conversation” on dedicated websites and social media channels could hardly be blamed for concluding that playing games and talking about them can take a serious toll on the psyche.

Let’s take a collective breath for a moment, shall we? When I survey the video game landscape and make a dispassionate assessment (as much as possible), it’s hard to understand why we’re so prone to gloom and despair. I see a bright horizon, filled with promise and terrific games.

The immediate future looks especially enticing. A “Magnificent Seven” assortment of big new games beckons me, and I couldn’t be more excited to play them.

  • Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  • Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
  • Assassin’s Creed 3
  • Saints Row: The Third
  • Kirby’s Return to Dreamland
  • Super Mario 3D Land

One can easily scoff at this list. All sequels (so we’ve obviously run out of ideas); all AAA titles (so I’m obviously biased toward major studios); all console games, except Skyrim (so I obviously hate PC games); no Call of Duty 3 (so I obviously hate war games). Bibbidy bobbidy boo.

Delivery

As I write this, Uncharted 3 is winging its way to me, “out for delivery” at any moment. The very thought of this brings me joy because the Uncharted games have given me so many gaming delights. I’ve written here before that a major Zelda title is my “drop everything” game, and Skyward Sword will be no exception. Will it revolutionize the Zelda franchise? No. Do I need that to fully enjoy the game? No.

I’m normally immune to pre-release hype, but Skyrim’s jaw-dropping trailers have me salivating for a new Elder Scrolls. Bethesda’s long record of superior craftsmanship suggests their new game will draw me into its world and, once again, steal dozens of hours from my life. I’m not the biggest Assassin’s Creed fan in the world, but the first two games point in such a promising direction that I’m encouraged Ubisoft will deliver a game that builds on what they’ve learned.

Dedicated Kirby players appreciate, as few others do, that Kirby games have consistently pushed in innovative directions, often jettisoning standard Kirby-isms in favor of other creative ideas its designers wish to pursue (e.g. Canvas Curse and Epic Yarn). As a swan-song Wii game, I’m curious to see what HAL Laboratories has come up with this time. The game is out now, but I haven’t yet had time to play it.

Super-Mario-3D-Land-1-600x300-600x250

Super Mario 3D Land is a major Mario release, developed by Nintendo EAD, the company’s main studio in Kyoto, also responsible for the masterful Mario Galaxy games. The 3DS has been kicked around, and justly so, for its lack of quality games. A new Mario designed specifically for the system is clearly Nintendo’s attempt to help silence those complaints. It’s worth remembering that EAD has an admirable track record designing games that leverage a system’s unique properties (e.g. Mario 64, Mario Kart DS, and the Galaxy games), so optimism for a new 3D Mario doesn’t seem misplaced to me.

That leaves Saints Row: The Third, perhaps a curious title for me to enthuse over. At the risk of being a little cryptic, I'll say that the developer of this game, Volition, lives down the road from me in Champaign, Illinois, and I've seen bits of what they've been working on. Let's just say this game refuses to be ignored. You'll see what I mean very soon. 

These seven games pile on top of the ones I’m currently playing with joyful gusto. Dark Souls has owned me for 40+ tension-filled hours with no end in sight. NBA 2K12 (GASP! a sports game?), broken online-mode aside, is a stellar sports game, the first I’ve seen to successfully blend cutting edge graphical realism and old-school simulation. Finally, Batman: Arkham City waves at me from its unopened plastic, crying "What about me? :-("

As excited as I am about these games, my optimism has other roots too. My recent visit to IndieCade convinced me we need not worry about a lack of vision or forward thinking in the games industry. In Culver City I saw a virtual cavalcade of terrific games, covering a wide spectrum of design ideas, and a burgeoning collection of designers eager to advance this art form in many new directions. I’ll write about one of those games in my next post.

More reasons for hope. This year I’m honored to again serve as a judge for the Independent Games Festival, held at the Game Developers Conference this March. Last year, the festival received nearly 400 entries, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. This year, the entry pool increased by another 40 percent! Even if many of these games never see the light of day, the raw numbers suggest more and more young artists see game design as their preferred mode of expression, and that can only be good for the future of the industry, broadly defined.

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One last thought. My friend Corvus Elrod has been working on an indie board game called Bhaloidam. Corvus describes it this way:

Bhaloidam is an indie tabletop game from Zakelro that is an open and accessible storytelling platform. With it you’ll spin character-driven stories and weave them together with the stories of your friends. You’ll exert your influence upon the storyworlds you create together, shaping its future and controlling your characters’ destinies as you perform their successes and their failures.

45 days ago, Corvus announced a Kickstarter fund to support the project, seeking $27,900 from backers. That’s almost 28K for a boardgame with an odd-sounding title and nobody famous involved. Today Corvus and company are celebrating. As of this writing, Bhaloidam has received $30,948 in support from 567 backers. The project is a GO, and Corvus is moving ahead with an initial production run of books, boards, tokens, and packaging, thanks to a community of supporters who believe in him and his work. I think that's a pretty remarkable thing.

There’s plenty of cause for hope around here. Sometimes we just need to break away from the chatter, which seems inevitably to follow a negative trajectory. As Mark Twain put it, “Lord save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.”


Soul Dojo

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To mold the mind and body. To cultivate a vigorous spirit, And through correct and rigid training, To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.
                                                        –“The Concept of Kendo,” 1975

I am sure you will die a lot in the game, but the game is designed in a way which a player can learn from his deaths. By experiencing a lot of deaths in the game, I am hoping that a player can find out how he can overcome each difficulty in the game… When the difficulty is high, all the values of things a player finds in the game will be very precious.
                                            –Hidetaka Miyazaki, director, Dark Souls

Most reviews of Dark Souls lead with a lament/celebration of its difficulty. Whatever else we might say about this game’s merits (and there is much to say), we’re fixated on this game’s capacity to bash our brains in. Many players find the difficulty frustrating, and some have suggested only masochists can truly enjoy the experience Dark Souls delivers. But for many of us, this game and its predecessor Demon’s Souls elicit an uncommonly ardent (dare I say reverential?) feeling of devotion that few games evoke. Why?

Dark Souls pushes all my buttons, provoking long, bleary-eyed play sessions; tenaciousness bordering on obsession; audible gasps of incredulity, followed by frustration, followed by profane tirades, followed by warnings from my wife not to wake up our 3-year-old. These behaviors are all familiar to me because Demon’s Souls provoked all the same reactions. I’m left wondering why no other games push me anywhere near those places?

These questions have rattled around in my head since late-2009, when Demon’s Souls sunk its hooks in me. What is it about these games that draws me in so completely? Why do I feel such a powerful compulsion to keep going, despite hundreds of ruinous failures along the way? Is it less about the game and more about me? Am I looking for a way to prove myself as a gamer? Am I simply a glutton for punishment?

Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss that last question so quickly. If the ‘punishment’ dished out by these games feels substantive to me - if it truly has meaning - then perhaps I do behave like a player-glutton. I eat up my punishment in big helpings, ever eager for more. I mean, if the shoe fits…

So, an obvious question arises: what does Dark Souls punishment mean? What exactly do I get out of it? Back in ‘09 I took a stab at that question with Demon’s Souls, and the answer I came up with was pedagogy. These games employ a failure-as-tutelage model that works remarkably well, if you’re willing to trust the teacher. Ultimately, the difficulty resonates because the cumulative impact of many failures is progress - and progress feels like victory in these games.

I believe that assessment holds, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t fully account for the grip Dark Souls has on me. Something else - deeper and more reverberant - is happening to me when I play this game. I believe it has something to do with training and mindful discipline. Playing Dark Souls intently, over time, is akin to practice, in both the common sense of the word - performing an activity or skill repeatedly to achieve mastery - and in the traditional spiritual sense - deepening our awareness through disciplined focus and effort.

For the correct transmission and development of Kendo, efforts should be made to teach the correct way of handling the shinai in accordance with the principles of the sword.[2]

DarkSoulsPlayerFor me, Dark Souls enables an approach to play that reflects Kendo (i.e. “The Way of Sword”) training, with some of the same benefits imparted to the earnest practitioner. Thus, the world of Dark Souls functions as a kind of virtual Dojo, a stern but playful host for rigorous lessons in persistence, patience, discipline, precision, mastery, and charting an optimal path.

Dark Souls is an exacting master, unsparing in its insistence on thoughtful play. No game requires more persistent mindfulness of my actions, my environment, and my technique. Each new place (and its terrain and inhabitants) will test what I’ve learned. Cautiously entering an uncharted region, I unfailingly pause to take a breath and consider my preparation. Am I ready for this? Do I have everything I need? Am I nimble enough? Am I strong enough? Am I fully focused and undistracted?

If any of these answers are ‘no,’ I will very likely die. If all the answers are ‘yes,’ I may survive, but probably not. The real challenge for me isn’t survival - I mean, the game starts the player as dead and insists on keeping him there - the challenge is mostly about paying attention. Learning the game’s cues, memorizing its environments, and internalizing its systems. Dark Souls doesn't rely on adaptive AI for its NPCs because doing so would disrupt this carefully balanced ecosystem. It would also likely make me shoot myself in the head.

The great misconception about Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is that they’re designed to kill you a thousand times. In fact, these games are a series of immaculately designed challenge chambers, designed to teach the studious player to succeed, but on the game’s terms. At the risk of cliche-mongering, I’ll suggest that this requires a kind of surrender often described as ‘letting go’ or ‘becoming one’ with the game.

If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
                                                --Tao Te Ching

And so in the Dark Souls Dojo the player cultivates his mind, spirit, and technique through disciplined practice, aiming for “Ki-ken-tai-ichi,” (“spirit, sword, and body are one”) a Kendo term used in teaching striking moves. “Ki is spirit, ken refers to the handling of the sword, and tai refers to body movements and posture. When these three elements harmonize and function together with correct timing, they create the conditions for a valid strike.”[1] This concept embraces a way of playing this game that appeals to me and enriches my time inside the game. I know what a "valid strike" is in Dark Souls. I have felt it.

When I play Dark Souls mindfully, it’s possible for me to experience a fully-unified sensation. Last night, I sustained it through a perfect run of the New Londo Ruins. I executed every move efficiently, with minimal effort and maximal effect. I knew exactly where to be, what to do, and how to do it. I was elegant and precise. It was less like fighting than dancing. It was beautiful.


Games aren't clocks

El-shaddai

DESIGN: 8.7 - STORY: 8.5 - GAMEPLAY: 8.5 - PRESENTATION: 9.3
                                          --GameTrailers.com review of El Shaddai

The primary function of a clock is to tell time. We may admire its appearance or the intricacy of its inner-workings, but the moment it ceases to function, its value diminishes for most of us. What good is a clock that can't tell time?

What is the primary function of a video game? We routinely assign values to particular elements of game design (story, visuals, replay value, etc.), but most people seem to agree that 'gameplay' - a problematic term at best - should be seen as the core function of a game. Whatever else we may say about the experience a game delivers, if it fails on the gameplay front, we may fairly consider it 'broken.'

Time to let go
I say it's time to let go of our preoccupation with gameplay as the primary criterion upon which to evaluate a game's merits. It's time to stop fetishizing mechanics as the defining aspect of game design. Designers must be free to arrange their priorities as they wish - and, increasingly, they are. Critics, too, must be nimble and open-minded enough to consider gameplay as one among many other useful criteria on which to judge a game's quality and aspirations.

It's tempting to adopt a finger-wagging attitude and point out the many times we've failed to account for the full measure of a game because of our preoccupation with gameplay, but the recent reception to El Shaddai - a game I admire for reasons I'll explain in another post - suggests we may be turning the corner.

To be sure, plenty of reviewers struggled to get their heads around the game's surrealist approach to design, so they relied on familiar assessment tools to apprehend the game: "a shallow button-masher," "horrendous platforming sequences," "not enough replay value," "combat...doesn't do enough new," "Gameplay is constantly interrupted for random story sections."

These criticisms add up to one damning charge: if El Shaddai communicates its experience primarily through its platforming and combat elements, then it is surely a failure. The thing is, it doesn't.

Encouragingly, plenty of critics tried hard to meet the game at the place where it was designed to be. Keza MacDonald at Eurogamer called it "the maddest and most beautiful thing...it isn't perfect, but it doesn't have to be." She goes on to describe El Shaddai's impossibly broad visual palette as detached from traditional art, "futuristic, science-fictional, psychedelic," all of which are true.

JC Fletcher's review at Joystiq is especially illuminating because he acknowledges his inclination to privilege gameplay above all other considerations. 

When I started playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron for review, I told myself I wasn't going to be fooled by the visuals. I would evaluate this game based on its mechanics more than anything, and I wouldn't let form distract me from function. I abandoned that idea quickly.

Fletcher goes on to suggest that the game's aesthetics "justify" El Shaddai as a form of "digital tourism" worthy of our attention, regardless of the success or failure of its mechanical properties. 

Stuck with the term
I often think it's a shame we settled on "video game" to describe this medium, this art form - but it's perfectly understandable. The most notable and defining property of a pioneering game like Spacewar! was the fact that its play space was a screen.

In the early days of any medium, we tend to focus on its mechanical properties - news on paper is a "newspaper;" photographs that move are "moving pictures" (soon shortened to "movies"); early short films are "two-reelers;" movies with sound are "talkies."

Long after we learned that film communicates meaning via editing, cinematography, art direction, and other powerfully expressive tools, we continued to label it with the primitive term coined by its earliest audiences: moving pictures. Who knew this newfangled curiosity - born from a bet about a horse's hooves - would soon be used to tell stories? Who knew it's jaw-dropping mechanical properties would soon be subsumed in the public's imagination by swashbucklers, Keystone Cops, and a little tramp?

On strictly mechanical terms, I might suggest that a film like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life fails in demonstrably obvious ways. It's full of 'mistakes' that apparently defeat the continuity he seems to establish at various points in the movie. Certain shots are overexposed, bracketed by others that aren't. Ponderous sequences feel detached from the narrative, stylistically and in terms of pacing. As a mechanical exercise in filmmaking - in projecting pictures that move - Tree of Life could be described as a mess. It is also undeniably, dazzlingly brilliant.

Too often, video games find themselves artificially confined in our critical imagination by their mechanical properties. Certainly, many games succeed or fail on the merits of their tightly-focused gameplay elements. But not all games. 

Applying a mechanics-based evaluative lens to every game is a foolhardy and self-limiting approach to games criticism. We may wish to hold a game accountable for its shortcomings among any list of criteria we may apply; but to suggest that any game with "broken gameplay" is essentially irredeemable is to ignore the possibility that other elements may supersede gameplay. Enter El Shaddai...Deadly Premonition...


The Catherine masquerade

Catherine-video-game

One refrain typically overwhelms all others when we talk about narrative games. Give us something different. In my own case, it’s Give me something truthful. In a critical environment where genre blends and formula tweaks are hailed as major advances in game design, a thematically ambitious title that genuinely challenges conventions and boundaries deserves special attention. Catherine is not that game, but it comes tantalizingly close.

Catherine masquerades as a sexually edgy interactive experience, and Atlus’s promotion, box art, and collector’s edition (Destructoid called it “wanktastic”) collectively send the message that Catherine is a naughty, wink-wink little game. It isn’t. I wish it were. Maybe Atlus lost its nerve, or maybe its designers never intended to cross certain boundaries of 'taste.'

I generally try to avoid taking a game to task for what it isn’t, but it’s hard not to see Catherine as a missed opportunity to navigate territory few games have explored. The potential is there. The game is remarkably effective at plunging the player into the subconscious of its protagonist, deeper than most games have delved. (The Darkness comes to mind as a notable exception.)

Vincent is one messed up dude, as are nearly all the men presented as NPCs. To Catherine’s credit, it shows us male characters we seldom see in games - vulnerable, damaged, self-loathing - all gathered in a freakish final-exam-nightmare purgatory. “Why am I constantly hurting the one I love?” wonders one NPC. Another ponders whether he should answer the test questions honestly, or choose the “right answer” - a dilemma reflected in the player’s experience choosing Vincent’s answers throughout the game.

Katherine The game features a series of hallucinatory images - metaphorical personifications of Vincent’s fears and insecurities - that help us see the world from inside his head. Sadly, this imagery feels curiously restrained for a game that stakes out the psycho-sexual territory Catherine seems to want to inhabit.

Catherine presents a Madonna/Whore dichotomy faced by Vincent, a shiftless, self-absorbed, 32-year-old heterosexual man torn between two women inexplicably drawn to him: Katherine (security, responsibility, parenthood) and Catherine (freedom, spontaneity, sex with no strings).

At times, Catherine flirts with adventurous material. Such a moment occurs when Vincent’s phone vibrates as Katherine is talking to him about taking a maternity leave. She's talking about a vitally important subject...but that phone just keeps buzzing. It’s a deliciously staged moment - awkward but tantalizing for Vincent. Is it Catherine calling? Has she sent another nasty photo of herself? Why am I so tempted to take this call, even as Katherine is reaching out to me? Why do I hate myself for even thinking this way?

Gradually, a cacophony of voices fills Vincent’s head as he tunes Katherine out. The thrill of the hunt collides with the fear of commitment. A whirr of thoughts and desires spin through his feverish mind, and just when you think something interesting may emerge from this chaos, the game bails Vincent out of the situation and the scene abruptly ends. This pattern is repeated at various key moments throughout the game.

We routinely denigrate cutscenes because they function as shortcuts to outcomes that might have been more richly realized through interactivity. Catherine’s cutscenes are more effective because they lead the player to make choices that significantly impact Vincent’s path through the game. Those of us with a special fondness for JRPGs have made our peace with a brand of interactivity that encourages replays to produce different outcomes. Catherine has a total of eight endings, branching from three central narratives. These endings differ wildly, and it’s fun to discover just how wide the gaps among them are.

Vincent Unfortunately, prime moments for player choice - situations that might lead one to fully explore Vincent’s darker desires - are off the table. Catherine teases an experience untethered from societal norms - and it offers an ending that liberates Vincent from all traditional mores - but the road to that outcome curves around all the best views. Games can provide safe places to explore our fantasies, but Catherine only lets us look out the window as they pass by.

I’ll leave it to others to analyze Catherine’s ‘gameplay’ elements. The question posed by its designers: “Can Vincent overcome all the blocks in his life?” creates an opportunity for action-puzzle sequences that strain to maintain their metaphorical relevance.

For the first hour or two, the story/play connection feels sound and occasionally even inspired. Sadly, the difficulty spikes unreasonably high, and the metaphor grows stale. Vincent keeps climbing - and reaching the top of each section imparts a feeling of victory - but these nightmare sequences soon begin to feel like filler material.

Catherine points at the potential for games to explore (responsibly) ‘off-limits’ sexual and psychological elements of human behavior, and it boldly allows the player to chart a course for Vincent that takes him to an M-rated destination. Perhaps another game will make the journey itself a playable fantasy.


The new intimacy

Screens

Ding. You have a private message. Ding. You have a new follower. Ding. Someone replied to your post. Ding. You've got mail. Ding. Time to make your move in Warlight.

Screens big and small dominate my life. I stare at them for most of my waking existence, rarely breaking my gaze. The digital dream has come true. I Skype with an old friend in China. I have thousands of songs in my pocket. My productivity is through the roof. My neck aches sometimes and my fingers tingle, but I don't slow down. I'm pugged in. I'm an early-adopter. 

See, I'm in control. These touch-screen toys can be turned off. I can close the lid on this laptop whenever I want. I can walk away. But I rarely do. Hours pass. I'm still here juggling tasks, keeping abreast, staying in touch. Feeling connected. Me and my screens. The new intimacy.

My daughter walks into the room. "Daddy, when will you be done?" "In a few minutes, sweetie." "Come downstairs, Daddy." "I'll be there in just a couple of minutes, okay?" "Okay, Daddy." Ding. Finish the post. Ding. Somebody likes my podcast. Ding. Spam problem needs attention.

Twenty minutes later. "Daddy! When are you coming?" "I'm almost done, sweetie. Just another minute. Almost done." "I want you to swing me." "I will, sweetheart. Just as soon as I'm finished." Ding. Finish the post. Ding. Check my traffic. Ding. A quick peek at Twitter. Ding. Shoot a link to Instapaper. Ding. Software update. Ding. Stuck on the post. Ding. Ding. Ding

One hour later. Google Plus notifies me and I respond. TypePad alerts me and I respond. iCal reminds me and I respond. My attention is required. Click. Click. I'm relevant. I'm vital to the conversation. I'm in the middle of something big here. Ding. My daughter has given up.

The house is quiet. I walk downstairs and look out the window. My wife is pushing Zoe on the swing. She's laughing, my broken promise forgotten. It occurs to me I could get some real work done in a quiet house like this. 

That's when it hits me like a bus. The sad, self-absorbed reality of it. "Go outside, breathe the air, and play with your daughter, you SOB!! What's the matter with you?!" Ding. I feel ashamed. Ding. I get the message. Ding. I jump off a moving train.

Call it penance. Detox. I stop gazing at screens. Five days with no tweets. No Zelda. No email. No RSS. I jettison the barriers - the screens, the earbuds, the chatter. I disconnect to reconnect with the non-virtual world I inhabit. Recalibrate. Reevaluate "productive." Embrace silence. Ride my bike. Build towers for the joy of knocking them down. Pay attention.

I adore video games. I treasure the online community and the authentic connections all this amazing technology enables. I love writing my blog. None of this has changed. I don't mean to equate the interactive grid with prison. YMMV.

But I think it's possible to find yourself drawn into a cyclical "ding-response" existence which feeds on perpetual content-flow. It feels important at the moment it grips you, but ultimately evaporates when the next momentous thing comes along. Jump off that train, and it barrels along without you. When you decide to reboard you'll realize that you may have missed a few stops, but that train never really had a destination anyway.

Balance. I needed to find my way. Now I hear Zelda inviting me back. Excuse me, I need to take this call.