Why baseball is better than democracy

Empires team

I don't often stray from video games on this blog, but sometimes my interest in games and my work as a stage director converge. My production of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out opens tomorrow night, and throughout the rehearsal process I've been struck by the play's analytical, yet lyrical take on baseball as a game that's more than a game. 

Take Me Out (winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play) tells the story of a Major League Baseball player named Darren Lemming who suddenly announces he's gay. The play explores the powerful aftermath of his decision and its consequences on him and the players around him.

It is also a love story. Darren's openly gay business manager Mason discovers the game of baseball and comes to embrace it as "this...astonishment! ...This...abundance." For the first time in his life, Mason learns to feel part of something bigger and greater than himself, and the experience fills him with gratitude.

Greenberg is hardly the first writer to wax philosophical on baseball as metaphor, but I find his argument especially persuasive. Those of us who understand the restorative nature of play and its transformative possibilities may resonate with Mason's observation that baseball achieves a "tragic vision" that other organized activities avoid. In a beautifully crafted soliloquy, he explains why baseball is better than democracy:

I have come (with no little excitement) to understand that baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society.

It has to do with the rules of play. It has to do with the mode of enforcement of these rules. It has to do with certain nuances and grace notes of the game.

First, it’s the remarkable symmetry of everything.

All those threes and multiples of three – calling attention to – virtually making a fetish of the game’s noble equality. Equality, that is, of opportunity.

Everyone is given exactly the same chance. And the opportunity to exercise that chance at his own pace.

There’s none of the scurry, none of that relentlessness that marks other games – basketball, football or hockey. I’ve never watched basketball, football or hockey, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like them. Or maybe I would but it wouldn’t be the same.

What I mean is, in baseball there’s no clock.

What could be more generous than to give everyone all these opportunities and the time to seize them in, as well? And with each turn at the plate, there’s the possibility of turning the situation to your favor. Down to the very last try.

And then, to insure that everything remains fair, justices are ranged around the park to witness and assess the play. And if the justice errs, an appeal can be made.

It’s invariably turned down, but that’s part of what makes the metaphor so right.

Because even in the most well-meant systems, error is inevitable. Even within the fairest of paradigms, unfairness will creep in.

And baseball is better than democracy – or at least democracy as it’s practiced in this country – because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss.

While conservatives tell you, ‘‘leave things alone and no one will lose,’’ and liberals tell you, ‘‘interfere a lot and no one will lose,’’ baseball says, ‘‘Someone will lose.’’ Not only says it – insists upon it!

So that baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades. Evades and embodies. Democracy is lovely, but baseball’s more mature.

I've loved baseball my whole life. Greenberg's words help me understand why.

I'm immensely proud of the work our students have devoted to this powerful play. If you live nearby (we're an hour west of Indianapolis), I invite you to attend our production of Take Me Out. The production runs Feb. 20-23 at 8:00 PM each night. Tickets are free.

Take Me Out contains adult language, themes, and partial nudity. It is intended for mature audiences.

Vintage Game Club: System Shock 2


When we discuss great games, we often cite particular moments burned into our brains: seeing Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina; the chainsaw zombie in Resident Evil 4; the death of Aeris; "Would you kindly..."; "The cake is a lie"; emerging from the sewers to gaze on Cyradil for the first time;  insult sword fighting; the final ascent in Journey; "Kick, punch, it's all in the mind." Those are a few of mine.

System Shock 2 has many such moments, perhaps more than any other game. When devoted players discuss storytelling in games, someone inevitably declares System Shock 2 one of the best ever, and rightly so. Its canny mix of FPS, RPG and survival horror elements remains among the most thoughtful and well-balanced in video game history. Today, nearly every game is a mash-up of familiar genres. System Shock 2 was the first to do it right.

And if you're an audio nut like me, SS2 remains one of the most affecting sound designs ever created for a game. Critics routinely describe SS2 as "atmospheric," and it certainly is, but more of that feeling creeps into your ears than your eyes. Wear headphones for this one, and don't ignore the audio logs.

Let's play it!
Today is a day to celebrate because Good Old Games (coming soon to Steam) has released System Shock 2 for all of us to revisit...or play for the first time. Along with the game, optimized for modern systems, players will receive the soundtrack, artwork, concept maps, an interview with Lead Designer Ken Levine, and the original pitch document, which is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and evolution of games.

So is System Shock 2 the great game many claim it to be? Are we wistfully clinging to a critic's darling that's fashionable to talk about, but no longer fun to play? Can a 14-year-old game with primitive graphics speak to modern players? Is it possible for a game to improve with age?

Now is your chance to answer those questions for yourself, in the company of friendly folks who enjoy playing and discussing older games together. You're invited to join us at the Vintage Game Club for our collective playthrough, which begins Monday, February 18.

Good Old Games has released SS2 in a DRM-free version that runs well on modern PCs. If you already own a boxed version of the game that works on your system, that's great. Players on GOG's forums report that community mods (Hi-Res, widescreen, etc.) appear to work with the GOG version too. 

We all have busy lives, so the VGC 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. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games. All are welcome!

The Vintage Game Club

The stuff of Fairy Tales


Some think the World a Mysterie 
Through which to blindlie blunder,
Yet Wiseards since Prehistory
Have sought to know its Wonder. 
           --”The Wizard’s Companion,” Ni no Kuni

A hundred years from now, when cultural historians and literature professors look back on the games we’ve played for the last 30+ years, they will see a renaissance age of Fairy Tales. They will study a deep catalog of storytelling games filled with heroes and supernatural helpers, anthropomorphic animals, magic potions, healing fruit and epic sojourns. Tales of fate, souls redeemed, loved ones lost and found. Nature as leitmotif. Wise trees, restorative stones, and guiding wind. The stuff of fairy tales.

The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, Mass Effect, Fable, despite their obvious differences, all exist within the "Perilous Realm” described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

Fairy-story as “stories about fairies” …is too narrow. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.

Zelda__wind_waker_by_ma5h-d52vo7tLike the video games we play, “fairy tale” is fraught with misconceptions, perceived by many as mindless frivolity aimed at children and adolescents. But we should know better. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (actual title: Children’s and Household Tales), our wildly imaginative games are accessible by children, but they also function on a deeper level where adults may unpack metaphorical connections to themes that challenge and captivate us, no matter our age. The melancholy, for example, that casts its shadow over the apparently childlike world of Wind Waker may not be apparent to children, but it’s there if you’re mature enough to see it.

When those curious academics look back at our fairy tale games, I believe they will recognize Ni no Kuni as a significant achievement. Few games have captured the once-upon-a-time magic and fanciful spirit of fairy tale so completely. Menacing darkness - a mother’s death, an abandoned child, and an evil spirit bent on destroying him - underlies a bright enchanted universe of eccentric fairies, cat-kings, and cow-queens. A boy overcomes his fears. A perilous journey is undertaken.

Of course, as with most fairy tales, there’s little new here, but novelty plays almost no role in such stories. Familiarity is a pivotal dimension of fairy tale because it is in the act of telling and re-telling that we dig into these apparently simple tales and derive meaning. In Ni no Kuni the infusion of Studio Ghibli style is notable because it distinguishes the game from the avalanche of teen-angst anime that has dominated JRPGs for so long. But in the end Ni no Kuni rings bells we’ve rung many times before, built with blueprints borrowed from Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Spirited Away.

So, if Ni no Kuni is so familiar, why does it feel so irresistibly fresh? Why does it captivate my imagination so thoroughly? Why does it linger in my thoughts, and why, as I near the end, do I feel a genuine foreboding that this intoxicating journey with friends will also soon end?

Frog_king_popI believe it has something to do with Tolkien’s notion of the Perilous Realm and “the air that blows in that country.” Ni no Kuni situates the player similarly to our position reading or hearing fairy fales like The Frog King or The White Snake. These stories aren’t about kissing frogs or talking animals. They’re about enduring values like patience, devotion, and abiding love. The designers of Ni no Kuni know what the Brothers Grimm understood about persuasive storytelling. A good storyteller allows his most cogent themes to drift serenely in Tolkien’s “air that blows in that country.”

Oliver searches for his mother in a land of fairies and monsters, enveloped by game design elements (collecting stamps, leveling up familiars, etc.) that quietly reinforce the game’s central values. He heals broken hearts and helps lost souls find their spiritual middle way. These are presented as apparently extraneous “sidequests,” gameplay padding to fill the 40+ hours that post-Final Fantasy JRPGs are expected to provide.

But like the servant in the Grimm’s The White Snake (and many other faithful fairy tale heroes), Oliver’s simple tasks - small missions he accepts from townspeople or minor characters - are the ones that define him. Grimm’s servant discovers what Oliver also learns: the big quest and the many little tasks are all part of a single overarching journey of sacrifice and self-discovery. In both stories the little things matter, but the reader/player may not realize that truth until the end.

Sometimes we try too hard to squeeze video games into the kinds of meaning we derive from books and movies. Think Cinderella and her stepsisters and those shoes. Maybe we're looking at games like Ni no Kuni the wrong way. Perhaps the fundamental structure of most games makes their narratives more akin to fairy tales than Hollywood pics. Given the enduring nature of fairy tales and their marvelous capacity to reach the elusive "children of all ages" demographic, maybe that's a good thing.

The humble case


A few days ago, I wrote that reasonable people have genuine concerns about the effects of violent video games - and depictions of violence across media - on our kids and society at large. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, harsh critics of video games have pitched drastic measures to curb violent content, while defenders contend our fascination with violence is healthy, innate and as old as The Iliad.

Neither argument is fully persuasive, and I think most of us fall somewhere between the two perspectives. Banning or censoring “objectionable” material is a dangerous and self-defeating precedent ; but the ceaseless flow of combat, death and destruction in games has come to feel overwhelming, even to those of us who sometimes consume and enjoy such media.

It’s important to note this isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them.

That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games - beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium - are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. I am forever explaining why this hero-saves-the-world game is infinitely superior to that one, among colleagues who can see no apparent difference between the two. But they are different, and those differences matter.

As a teacher, I’m predisposed to believing we can teach and learn our way past most problems. Maybe that’s a naive perspective. Perhaps Ian Bogost is right when he calls Joe Biden’s meeting with the video game industry “a trap.”

The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

I understand Bogost’s point, but I don’t believe talking to a politician implies acquiescence. We can’t surrender a point we haven’t yet owned (I didn’t say “earned,” which is a different thing). Bogost and I (and probably you) know from experience that games are, in fact, a “diverse and robust medium,” but the conversations I described in my last post suggest we’re nowhere near ubiquity on that point of view. Brendan Sinclair gets it right in an op-ed piece that appeared on GamesIndustry earlier today:

Despite everything the Wii and mobile and social games have done to expand the audience in recent years, when people think of games, they still think of an endless parade of games that let players shoot each other square in the face. And it's completely understandable why. That's what we make. That's what we market. That's how we present ourselves to the outside world... So when tragedies happen, our response must be galling to those who don't "get" games... Instead of explaining the merits of what we do, we throw up discussion-ending roadblocks of First Amendment rights and scientific research... It's not unlike what the National Rifle Association does when the issue of gun control comes up. They say it doesn't work, namecheck the Second Amendment, and change the subject.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of E3, especially given the rise of mobile/casual games that rarely appear there. But we must acknowledge that the show exists as the biggest, loudest, and most media-blanketed games event in North America. Nearly all the major developers are there (and an increasing number of indies), and coverage reaches into mainstream media outlets like no other event.

E3 is the public face of the video games industry, and it is an ugly mess. This year’s event was essentially about watching publishers run one bloody shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. As I noted after returning from L.A. last June, two massive convention halls filled with shooters isn’t ethically problematic. It’s worse than that. It’s boring.

In the current political climate, we who care about games can make a difference, but we must acknowledge and address genuine public concern about games that make killing feel like fun. It’s a moment for us to bring forward our best stories about games - not as a collective “God, I love this game,” or “This game made me cry,” but as careful observers of the deep and vivid experiences games can provide. We must put our faces and reputations behind the games we admire and explain to a skeptical public why violent games like Bioshock, Metro 2033, and The Walking Dead really are about more than plugging baddies with bullets and ray-guns.

I’m not pointing at an invisible mountain. It’s there, and many have successfully climbed it. It’s an ongoing effort from a community I’m proud to be part of, and we’ll keep doing our thing.

Our new challenge (not really new, but certainly more pressing now) is to fuse our critical sensibilities with a humility that understands why otherwise tolerant people feel outrage when they see bulky power-fantasy avatars armed to the hilt, mowing down enemies with automatic weapons. We cannot shield ourselves from the reality that there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, with killings in 30 states. 25 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and 7 of them took place in 2012.(1)

We may never finish making the case for games, but if we’re to succeed, we must make that case with compassion for those who feel victimized by violence in all its forms.

Violence will always factor into our play. It’s our job to explain the function of that violence in our make-believe worlds and assign meaning where we can find it. The places where we cannot may be the places where our critics have something to teach us.

Notes from the wild


This holiday season I went off the grid. No email. No Twitter or Feedly. Notifications disabled. Nothing chirping for my attention except my kid, whose startup sequence deploys at 6:30 A.M.

This wasn’t something I planned, but after a few days I decided to stick with it. I expected to feel disconnected, but instead it felt cleansing, liberating…necessary. If you can manage to cut the cord, even for a few days, I recommend giving it a try. You may find yourself noticing things like the UPS man’s nifty gloves, the sound of snow crunching under your feet, or your own breathing.

During my time in the analog wild, I thought a lot about games. I made a point of discussing them with anyone willing to chat with me about them. My circumstances in recent weeks brought me into contact with students from all over the world, travelers, family members, and a broad assortment of friendly folks I met between Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

Recently I’ve begun to reflect on how we think and talk about games and the industry producing them. By “we” I mean developers, critics, enthusiasts - basically anyone likely to visit this site or others like it.

The upside of our evolving community is an enhanced critical focus on games and quality writing about them. The downside is that we’re growing increasingly detached from the people who play games and fuel the market for them. I see this as a predictable (and not altogether negative) result of several factors: growing specialization among critics and a trajectory toward more micro-analysis; an increasingly segmented market of games and players; and a natural tendency to overestimate the prominence of the echo chamber we’ve built to host our conversations.

My informal chats with “regular gamers” have led me to a few conclusions, none of which I’ll attempt to quantify. I’m relying on impressions gathered through careful listening here, so if you’re looking for hard data, you should probably get off the bus now. I’m an artist, not a sociologist, folks. :-)

  • We don’t pay enough attention to the games people actually play.
    Many of us were happy to learn that Dishonored recently topped 2 million in sales, exceeding expectations of its publisher. According to Bethesda’s Pete Hines, “We clearly have a new franchise." Good news for a good game, but consider it in context with Rovio’s recent announcement that its Angry Birds games were downloaded 8 million times on Christmas Day alone, and 30 million times in the week of December 22–29. 

    Clearly, I’m comparing apples and oranges in terms of design and price, but my point is that we routinely ignore mobile/tablet games that utterly dominate the games marketplace. Sure, many of these games are throwaways (as are some console games that receive far more attention), and a few receive critical-darling treatment (e.g. Superbrothers: S&S, Osmos). But most mobile/tablet games appear and disappear quietly with little critical fanfare outside mobile-centric sites like Touch Arcade or Slide to Play. For games like Dream of Pixels, Gua-Le-Ni, Girls Like Robots, or The Room, that’s a shame.

  • No one appears eager for a new generation of consoles.
    I couldn’t find a single person who expressed anything resembling excitement for the next generation of consoles. Some believe new hardware will lead to better looking games…but not a lot better, and that’s the sticky point. In this economy, with current systems still perceived as viable, it’s apparently hard for many people to muster much enthusiasm for pricy new systems with incremental improvements.

  • Very few people have even heard of the Wii U
    I wish I had a dollar for every person who looked at me quizzically when I asked them about the Wii U. Few knew anything about it, and the ones who did had fuzzy ideas about its touchscreen controller or how it differed from the Wii. Even those who had seen a TV or print ad for the system seemed confused about it. I didn’t speak to a single person who expressed an interest in owning one. That’s probably bad, right?

  • Lots of people are perfectly happy with their outdated, outmoded, hopelessly dead-end Wii systems.
    In fact, when I asked people what games they play at home, Wii titles like Sports Resort, and Dance Party came up more often than other games. When you read someone in the games press say “I dusted off my Wii to play X,” remember that for lots of people, it’s the only system they own, and it’s still lots of fun, especially at family gatherings. I shot this bit of evidence the day after Christmas.

  • Nobody cares about 3D or voice-control, and nobody wants to navigate a menu by waving their hands.
    I don’t think I can add anything to that statement.

  • Indie games like Journey have a tiny footprint.
    I may feel strongly that Journey is a masterpiece of game design, but the reality is that most people have never heard of it and will never play it. Chalk it up to indie games still making their way in the marketplace. Minecraft is more significant in this regard, at least among the people I spoke to. 

    But the real culprit remains the self-defeating marginalization of system-exclusive releases. I can preach to a class of 30 students that they simply must play Journey, but when only 2 of those students own a PS3, few will respond. I realize the industry is what it is, but until I can recommend games, or loan them out like I do books and movies, games will remain culturally balkanized. Here again, moble/tablet games are knocking down such arbitrary walls. When I say “you must play Triple Town” to a person with a smartphone, chances are she will because she can.

  • Intelligent people are genuinely worried about violence in games.
    You and I can debate the question and exchange scholarly studies, but recent events have sensitized people to the issue of violence in games like never before. We (critics, press, designers) must address this now. Claiming a lack of data or citing studies that say violent crime has dropped in recent years won’t cut it. 

    Why not? Because those arguments fail the sniff test. It no longer matters whether or not games contributed to the massacre at Newtown. What matters is that lots of reasonable people have come to believe we’re awash in depictions of bloody violence across media, and repeatedly exposing our kids to this stuff is just plain wrong. In all my years of playing shooters and brawlers, my mother never expressed a shred of concern. But this year at Christmas she looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you worry that video games make killing seem like fun?” And for the first time I answered yes.

X of the Year

I'm a sucker for all the "best of" lists that appear at the end of the year, but they do get repetitive. This year we'll see an avalanche of game roundups that include Journey and The Walking Dead, among other deserving games. Just for fun, what do you say we try something a little different?

I've been thinking about things that stuck with me playing games this year. Little moments. Surprises. Disappointments. People who made me stop and think. So I decided to make my own highly subjective list to account for them. Here are a few of my favorite things (and one not-so-favorite), 2012 edition.

[Feel free to add your own "X of the Year" categories and winners in the comments below. I based these on my own experiences. I hope you'll do the same.]

Mechanic of the Year - Dishonoured's Blink
228px-Blink"Blinking" in Dishonored was the most fun I've had since donning a Tanooki suit in Super Mario Bros. 3. When a game mechanic encourages you to abandon all pretense of story or progress and simply fool around with it for hours on end, that's the mark of a fun mechanic. Blink (the ability to instantly teleport short distances undetected) is the core tool in Dishonored's strategy arsenal, so it had better feel like butter. And it does. Like any well designed mechanic, it's also multipurpose, useful in various situations (e.g. climbing, sneaking, fleeing, exploring). In 2012 Assassin's Creed 3 gave us a Dissociative Identity Disorder assassin hurtling through trees, but I'll take a failed bodyguard blinking his way around steampunk Dunwall any day.

NPC of the Year - Kenny in The Walking Dead
KennyThe Walking Dead is the first game I've played that can truly be spoiled by spoilers, so I won't say anything too specific about Kenny. I will say that 90% of all media (not just games) that depict characters like Kenny present him as an ignorant chaw-chomping redneck spouting homespun "wisdom" for comic relief. Kenny in The Walking Dead is a man you can't size up in a glance. Telltale wisely refused to dull his sharp edges or dismiss him as foil, sidekick, or obstacle. He's a man with a family in an impossible situation. That Kenny appears, flaws and all, in The Walking Dead sans dramaturgically convenient devices attached is a testament to the ongoing maturation of storytelling in games.

Comeback of the Year - PC gaming
AlienwareSome time in the mid-1990s we began hearing the death knell for PC gaming, and that bell hasn't stopped ringing...until this year. 2012 was the year PC games reemerged as a dominant platform for gaming, thanks to several converging factors: 1.) The ubiquity of Steam and its status as the industry model for digital distribution 2.) All three major consoles reaching the ends of their life-cycles 3.) Developers no longer ignoring or shipping sloppy ports to PC. Nearly all cross-platform AAA games released on PC this year were on-par or superior to console versions 4.) Indie games taking root on the PC, aided by Humble Bundles, Steam sales, and less onerous gatekeeping. To be fair, 2012 was a good year for PSN indie games too. But if you peruse the entries for the upcoming IGF competition at GDC, you'll find that most solo and small-team devs are targeting two primary markets: PC and mobile/tablet. My students overwhelmingly chose the PC over consoles for their term paper games this year, even when console SKUs were available. Anecdotal, yes, but that's never happened before.

Happiest Moment of the Year - Mark of Ninja Credits
Markoftheninja_box_artThe biggest smile I got playing a 2012 game arrived at the end of Mark of the Ninja, one of the best games of the year. The very first name to appear when the credits rolled was "Lead Designer - Nels Anderson." Moments later, "Writer - Chris Dahlen." If you've followed my work here, you know how much I love and respect these two guys. It's tremendously encouraging to know that sometimes the good guys really do win. Play this game, people.

Hardware of the Year - Wii U Gamepad
Wiiu-gamepadI have no idea if Nintendo's new console will succeed, but I do know I love its Gamepad controller. Despite a bulky appearance in photographs, the device feels fabulous to hold. It fits naturally in my hands, not too heavy or light, with a sharp and bright screen. Concerns about lag between the gamepad and big screen have evaporated. A coming-soon Google Maps app looks stunning. ZombieU is a solid early clinic on two-screen design. Yeah, battery life could be better. But Miiverse doesn't suck like we thought it would. Nintendo is integrating in-game activity with online communities like nobody else at the moment. Some very cool ideas here.

Disappointment of the Year - Assassin's Creed 3
Assassins-Creed-IIILots of reviewers apparently loved it, but I couldn't shake the feeling of being persistently led the nose, surrounded by pointless optional activities that added nothing to my experience. AC3's story-within-a-story-within-a-story has stopped making sense to me. Come to think of it, I'm not sure it's ever made sense, at least in terms of benefit gained from story layers applied. Far Cry 3 is getting a drubbing for its sophomoric storytelling, but is the AC series' ponderous Assassin/Templar Inception-lite mumbo jumbo any better? Sure, it's a pretty game with Parkour-appeal, but when I read a reviewer claim "one of the greatest stories of this gaming generation has just released its greatest chapter," it seems to me we've set our storytelling bar woefully low.

Event of the Year - IndieCade
GT-IndieCade-2I attended GDC, E3, and IndieCade this year, and I can honestly say IndieCade took the cake when it came to showcasing innovative games, unfettered access to designers, and across-the-board inclusiveness. IndieCade is all about advancing progressive games (broadly defined) and challenging an industry resistant to change. There's an unmistakable political dimension to this effort, but IndieCade is also about a very simple concept. Open up a bunch of public spaces, invite designers from everywhere to come and share their work, and have lots of fun doing it. 2012 will be remembered as a big year for indie games, and IndieCade is a big reason why.

Website of the Year - (tie) Unwinnable and Nightmare Mode
UnwinnableYou can find good writing about games in more places than ever (plenty of awful stuff too), but this year I found myself drawn to these two sites, both of which feature forceful essays about games by writers uncontrained by conventional media boundaries. At Unwinnable Stu Horvath has assembled an off-the-charts awesome group including Jenn Frank, Gus Mastrapa, Chris Dahlen, Brendan Keogh, and Richard Clark. The Nightmare Mode crew led by Patricia Hernandez consists of "a group of outsiders, insiders, aliens, starfighters, and the occasional human being." For a taste of why these sites merit your bookmarks, read John Brindle's piece on gamers as the "educated elite" at Nightmare Mode and Gus Mastrapa's "Apologies to Christopher Tolkien" at Unwinnable.

Wake-Up Call of the Year- #1ReasonWhy
1reasonwhyOn November 26, a Twitter hashtag, #1ReasonWhy, exploded with dozens of posts from women and male allies describing examples of sexism and hostility drawn from their own lives. The event got lots of media attention, and many voices were heard. We've long known that gender discrimination, harassment, and misogyny (overt and subtle) are rampant in the game industry and its surrounding community of players. This issue has been addressed in panel discussions at GDC, PAX, and elsewhere. Commentators and critics - many here in the blogosphere - regularly challenge, confront, cajole, question, shine light, and anything else they can think of to educate and bring genuine change.

I mention these efforts because the mainstream media (e.g. TIME, Forbes, The Huffington Post) would have you believe Twitter gave birth to a movement on November 26. It didn't. It did provide a welcome public push for awareness and change, and that's a good thing. But we shouldn't forget that others in our community have tirelessly pushed that rock up the hill for a long time.

OMG Moment of the Year - Conversation with Zoe (my 5-yr-old daughter)
ZoebikeZoe: Daddy, why do you love Mario?
Me: Why? Because he's fun to play with.
Zoe: He's like a funny friend.
Me: Yes, he is. A friend I've known for a long time.
Zoe: A loooooong time. Before I was born.
Me: That's right.
Zoe: I'm glad Mario lives with us.
Me: Oh? Do you think he lives with us?
Zoe: Yes. He is our family.
Me: You think so?
Zoe: Of course, Daddy!
Me: Ok.
Zoe: He is funny Uncle Mario.

Got your own category and winner? Add it in the comments. Happy holidays, and happy gaming.

Gallery of goodness


It’s time to stop fretting about storytelling in video games. Five years ago - around the time Bioshock appeared - designers and critics began to intensify our focus on things like player agency and emergent gameplay. We coined phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance” and “on-rails” storytelling to characterize how games often fall short of their potential or dim in comparison to more mature media. Games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 became rallying points for us to gather and measure the progress of narrative games to that point. These were tremendously useful conversations, well worth the energy they consumed.

But times have changed and so have the games. If the crop of 2012 proves anything, it’s that games and their designers now claim storytelling space across a wider spectrum of design and discourse. Progressive designers have severed ties with film and other media, or they’ve repurposed the language of those media to serve their creative ends.

Abstraction is no longer a low-budget refuge, but a tool leveraged by artists who see opportunity in fracturing time and space, filling their storytelling worlds with punchy ideas that push us to assemble meaning. The narrative games of 2012 have the audacity to make us keep up. Have you played Thirty Flights of Loving, by the way?

The games of 2012 suggest that designers are discovering and exploiting more channels of communication with players. In the past, these efforts have mostly been about experimenting with genre. Limbo is a great example of a developer mixing familiar gameplay mechanics with macabre horror elements to make something that looks familiar, but feels different. Filmmakers have done this for years, mimicking or reframing genre (e.g. zombie movies, westerns, vampire tales), applying a canny modern sensibility to address contemporary themes. Quentin Tarantino has made a career of it.

But few filmmakers stray from conventional storytelling forms. They may play with linearity or occasionally rethink the screen space (television is actually more ambitious in this regard), but most thematically ambitious films conform to standard presentations of time, place, and character.

Not video games. In 2012, many of the best play-worthy games were built by designers who found their voices by re-thinking the essential structure and function of games. This year, the very definition of “game” was thrown into question more often and by more designers than ever before.

If the signature of a vibrant art is artists pushing conventional boundaries, questioning formal assumptions, and producing provocative, wildly divergent work, this was a very good year for the art of games.

For a taste of what I mean, consider this gallery of assorted goodness. (Note: some parts of these descriptions are drawn from developer blurbs or related sources, but most are my own):

  • UnmannedUnmanned - Winner of the 2012 IndieCade Grand Jury Prize, molleindustria’s newest game is about a day in the life of a drone pilot. The game relies on a series of short, split-screen vignettes to combine simple mini-games with clickable conversation options, taking the player through the humdrum existence of a modern drone pilot. Shaving, driving to work, even playing video games with your son are all given equal weight to blowing up a suspected insurgent thousands of miles away. The game’s short length invites multiple playthroughs, with different options leading to significantly different outcomes.

  • Journey-soloJourney - Indie games’ definitive statement, Journey is probably the best and most fully realized game of 2012. Lots of people have had their say about this remarkable game, including chatty me here, here, and here. No game better demonstrates the power of experiential gameplay or the poetic quality of organic design.

  • Dear-esther-2Dear Esther - Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional gameplay the here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly uncovered when exploring the island, making every each journey a unique experience. Is Dear Esther a game? I don’t know, but I agree with Edge Magazine’s contention that it is “something incredibly beautiful that could not exist without videogames.”

  • Thirty-flights-of-lovingThirty Flights of Loving - A first-person video game short story that wears its pulpy jump-cut influences on its sleeve without resorting to mimicry or parody. Thirty Flights of Loving can only be experienced as a game, and the story it tells begs to be played, replayed, and played again. Designer Brendon Chung’s message to players is simple: I will make something worth mining for meaning, and I will trust you to dig. This game would be unthinkable without Chris Remo's soundtrack, by the way. Playing Thirty Flights of Loving injected me with joyful bursts of hipness, a transformation akin to Lazarus' resurrection.

  • SimonySimony - Ian Bogost makes games that explore the nature and function of games. And players. His latest, Simony, is a medieval church politics-themed game about earning your station among a community. Is glory and achievement something you earn, or something you buy? Is it more right (or more righteous) to ascend to a rank or office on the merits of your actions than on the influence of your connections, or the sway of your bank account? Simony was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville. Players who choose to buy their way to the top can ascend to form the "Jury of Ten," invited to enter the inner sanctum of the actual museum. There, they will choose how to spend the proceeds generated by the game on the museum's behalf. C'mon, how cool is that?! Ian Bogost is the rarest of critics who also functions as an artist, and his work on each side of that divide informs the other.

  • AnalogueAnalogue: A Hate Story - Christine Love’s dark visual novel extends the non-linear style of her previous Digital: A Love Story in a mystery featuring transhumanism, traditional marriage, loneliness, and cosplay. The player explores a long-derelict ship by perusing dead crew logs, engaging in terminal hacking, and maybe even discovering friendship or romance with an AI over the course of the investigation. Teachers like me are forever seeking material to promote close reading and thoughtful conversation among our students. Take it from me, AAHS works like gangbusters.

  • To-the-Moon-Logo1To the Moon - This game was released late in 2011, but many of us didn’t learn about it until this year. It’s a cliché to claim games can make us cry, but this unassuming adventure RPG (built with dev tools first released in 1992) had me weeping like a baby. It’s a disarmingly lyrical story about two doctors traversing through the memories of a dying man to fulfill his last wish. To the Moon doesn’t break formal molds like other games on this list, but it does suggest powerful storytelling can still emerge from worlds built with 16-bit sprites and pre-made tilesets...if the writing is good enough.

  • Papoyo610Papo & Yo - As I wrote in my previous post, Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. He runs and climbs and uses his superpowers to transform the world around him, and the game situates these actions - all metaphorical - at its narrative core. What you do (reach, climb, bend, flee) and what this game means are intrinsically linked like few games before it. And, yeah, this one made my face rain too.

  • BientotleteBientôt l’été - You’ll have to trust me on this one, a game from Tale of Tales still in development (I've played the most recent beta build). Click on the link for more info. I’m a judge for the Independent Games Festival at GDC this March, and I can tell you the judges' online discussion of Bientôt l'été was among the most stimulating I’ve seen for any game. I can’t say more than that, but watch this space for more.

  • ClemThe Walking Dead - I’m including this game, not because it innovates per se (it’s essentially a traditional point-and-click adventure game with terrific production values), but because it exists as an example of something good artists have long known. Sometimes we overvalue new. Sometimes what we need is familiar done extraordinarily well. That’s what The Walking Dead is all about. Human relationships explored with nuance and insight, character-driven plotting, pithy dialogue delivered by exceptionally strong actors. Serial drama that's genuinely dramatic.

Games with lots of words; games with none. Games with lots of choices; games with few. Narratives linear, fractured, and in-reverse. Big beautiful worlds of photorealistic suns and blocky pixelated moons. Player as moral compass; player as explorer; player as archaeologist; player as sociologist; player as damaged child. Systems and mechanics all over the map. A panoply of interactive stories.

I hope this post won’t be misconstrued as arguing for complacency. I don’t believe we’ve reached some final destination we should celebrate. Not at all. I can’t think of a designer who isn’t trying to move the ball down the field. Every narrative game released in this environment is a thesis statement for how to improve storytelling, broadly defined, in games. We’re nowhere near maturity, and I’m not sure we should want to be. It’s good to be emerging. 2012 was a good year. The work continues.

The wreckage and the way out


I tried hard not to write this post. I finished Papo & Yo three weeks ago, and each day since, I promised myself I would sit down and write about it. But each day I found a new way to dodge the job. Too busy. Couldn’t find the words. Moved on to other games. Who cares what I think anyway? Always a reason to avoid facing the empty page and the memories.

For five years I’ve written about all sorts of games here. Papo & Yo is the first to incapacitate me; to make me feel awkward and inadequate to the task. Papo & Yo brought me face-to-face with painful truths I've never addressed. It resurrected pieces of my childhood long buried in the dirt. It took me where I've never wanted to go. Back to my father, and that fearful time, and all the wreckage.

Papo & Yo opens with a boy alone in the dark, cowering in the corner of his room as a growling monster paces outside his door. Trapped and petrified, the boy hugs his favorite toy, hoping the danger will pass. Suddenly a mysterious glyph appears on the wall: a magical escape portal summoned, we soon learn, by his imagination. He gathers his courage, rises, and walks toward it. Nearly everything we need to know about this boy is conveyed in these few vivid moments.

Papo & Yo is not a sentimental game. Instead of gently liberating him from the monster, the portal forcibly ejects the boy, tossing him head over heels onto the stone pavement where he lands in a heap. A young girl beckons him through a mysterious door that disappears when he draws near it, and she revels in confounding him. The monster reappears, burning with rage to chase and assault him. Soon a white chalk line will inexorably draw him to revisit violent images from his past. Death, abuse, and reckless violence unfold, and Quico is powerless to dispel them. He must learn to adapt. Accept. And let go.

Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. When Quico rearranges the favela, bending buildings like vinyl tubing, it’s possible to see this reconstruction as absurdly easy puzzle-solving.

But doing so presumes “gameplay” cannot be abstracted in the ways we routinely abstract other design elements. In other words, instead of assuming Papo & Yo’s puzzles were designed by hopelessly incompetent puzzle-makers, why not consider the possibility that their simplicity communicates something essential about the story this game wants to tell?

Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. Quico’s challenge isn’t solving puzzles. There is nothing puzzling about his existence. Quico is painfully well acquainted with his dire existence. His challenge is to survive and overcome a sinister reality. Activating gears and rearranging buildings are simple means to evocative ends. Quico runs and climbs and imagines he can fly because that’s what a 10-year-old boy does. He uses his superpowers to transform the world around him, and the game situates these actions - all metaphorical - at its core.

When Quico locates a hard-to-reach a gear (a gear, of all things) and makes it turn, can we not see it as more than a puzzle piece, collectible, or Achievement? Can we afford a game designer the same opportunities we offer other artists? To repurpose language. To re-frame imagery. To render the commonplace poetic.

One major game site (which scored the game a 4 out of 10) complained the puzzles “are about process, not challenge, so there’s no sense of reward for what you accomplish.” I can only assume this writer has a very different notion of “process” and “reward” than me. In Papo & Yo, the process is the reward. After 30+ years of evolution, must we limit our appreciation of games to the utility of their feedback loops?

An abusive father leaves a trail of suffering and psychological debris in the minds of his children. My mother, my sister and I know this well. The only escape is forgiveness. I have never been able to find my way there.

Papo & Yo’s final twenty minutes offer a path to that liberation and beautifully illustrate its transformative power. For the first time in my life, with a controller in my hands, I lived in that free place, inhabiting a courageous Brazilian boy. If Papo & Yo missteps, it makes choosing that treacherous path look easy. But I’m grateful to Quico, my brother, for showing me his way. I hope someday to make it mine.

Emotional experience through a gameplay world


The nature of our terms affects the nature of our observations.
                                                                                    --Kenneth Burke

We need a better way to write about games. I don’t mean a new form of journalism. I’m not seeking the Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael of video games. My point is much simpler.

We need more words.

For a long time we’ve tried to make games align with our critical sensibilities. We’ve focused a dramaturgical lens on narrative games; we’ve applied film theory to cinematic games; we’ve examined games as rhetorical systems; and we’ve tried to understand the systemic principles that define games. These are worthy efforts, not a waste of time. We each shine the light we own.

But as we’ve waited for games to “grow up” and claim their cultural place in the sun, the medium has broadened and deepened beyond our ability to discern it. In other words, as we’ve struggled to affix labels like “art game” and “experiential game” to a broad stylistic spectrum, game makers - mostly, but not exclusively, in the indie space - continue to push ahead, challenging us to keep up and find new ways to critically engage.

I'm talking about designers like Jonathan Mak, Mark Essen, Christine Love, Jonathon Blow, and Jenova Chen, among others. I'm talking about studios like Molleindustria, Capybara, and Tale of Tales.

I'm talking about an indie movement bigger than games, driven by what Paolo Pedercini (Molleindustria) calls a "soft-rebellion" of artists with "an excess of creativity…a creativity that exceeds the ability of capital to commodify it."

We’re no longer waiting for designers to produce games worthy of critical scrutiny. The situation has reversed. Creative designers are building games, inviting us to find a language or critical approach to convey their essential meaning...or if not meaning, then what they are. What they do. New tools (or refined tools) for new games.

We can go about this in several ways, but maybe the best place to start is to think about our critical lexicon. We need new words. Or better words. Or simply different words. We’ve worn out the old ones. I'll show you what I mean.

Focusing on three “artsy” games released this year - Journey, Papo & Yo, and The Unfinished Swan - I collated review and analysis texts from a range of outlets (Edge Magazine, Joystiq, Eurogamer, PopMatters, Wired, plus ten others). I chose these games because they were widely reviewed, but more importantly because each invites critical assessment on its own terms, outside traditional genre boundaries. If any games can provoke a fresh supply of words, these are the ones, I thought.

Next, I generated a word cloud for each game, filtering out game titles, articles (a, an, the, etc.), and terms like “game,” “Playstation,” and “review.” Here are the results. (Click to enlarge any cloud.)


What emerges is a stark and narrow collection of terms, none of which goes very far describing the essence or, dare I say, soul of these games. There’s nothing wrong with words like "emotional" or "experience" per se. Most games do convey a "world" and deliver "gameplay," but too often these terms function as generic placeholders. They communicate a vague sense of something richer, more vivid and complex. In a mush of overused terminology, they’re essentially meaningless.

Some critics excel at structural analysis, digging for words to characterize hard-to-convey elements of games like dynamics and variation. Richard Terrell has been plowing this row since 2007, nobly wrestling with the limits of language. On the academic front Juul, Zimmerman, Bogost and others have built theoretical frames that help us understand how games communicate meaning. Frank Lantz and his gang at the NYU Game Center are contributing mightily, exploring game design as creative practice.

But we continue to see a disconnect between scholarship about games and the critical community charged with writing about games for a broader non-academic audience. Worse, we struggle to capture the more elusive, expressive dimension of games. Their poetic and sensory qualities are too often wrapped up in the kinds of generalities the word clouds above illustrate.

So, what to do? I believe Susan Sontag's charge to critics in her seminal "Against Interpretation" has relevance today:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us... Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I disagree with Sontag's belief in the futility of "meaning." A good critic can "read" a work of art without prescribing a definitive point of view or ignoring "what it is." I've enjoyed reading various responses to the ending of The Unfinished Swan, for example, but not even its author's explanation can determine my own sense of its meaning.

But her main assertion sticks. If we are to see games clearly, we must show how they are what they are. Part of that work is structural and systemic, and part of it sensual and aesthetic. We've made inroads to the first, but little progress with the second. We need more words. Different words. Better words. Finding them won't get us all the way there, but it's a good start. In my next post, I'll give it a shot. You can let me know what you think.

Crafting wonder

Jenova Amy Ian

Players and critics are hardwired to classify. We obsessively index and categorize the games we play, relying on their mechanical properties (platformer, RTS, FPS, etc.) to communicate their essential characteristics. Not content to classify the games, we even classify the gamers, building taxonomies to describe who plays games and why. We’re human. We file things. We can’t help it.

Publishers follow suit, describing their games in familiar terms. When I saw Dishonored a few months ago at E3, the booth rep made sure I knew the game would appeal to FPS and stealth and RPG fans alike. The Arkane/Bethesda folks wanted us to know Dishonored would blend and refine familiar elements from other successful titles, and those expectations frame how we see the game. It's hard to find a review of the game that doesn't focus on Dishonored's mechanical debts to Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex, etc.

But what about games that downplay or discard traditional game architecture? How do we classify them...or should we? We can discuss games like Journey, and Dear Esther in the same breath with Eric Loyer’s games (Ruben & Lullaby, Strange Rain) or the work produced by Tale of Tales (The Path, The Graveyard), but these games share little in common, aside from their status as “art games” or “experiential games.” There I go classifying again.

It’s possible to ask more interesting questions. At IndieCade last week, I attended an illuminating panel discussion among three designers from different places on the design spectrum: Jenova Chen, Creative Director of Journey and Flower, Amy Hennig, Creative Director of the Uncharted series, and Ian Dallas, Creative Director of The Unfinished Swan.

Moderator Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther) began by asking what developers can learn from adopting an unorthodox approach to game design.

Jenova Chen observed “there is a big difference between being a designer and a director,” noting an important distinction between mechanics design and 'experience design.' “I really see my brain functioning differently when I'm trying to create an emotional arc and meaning. I'm thinking as a director, not a level designer or a mechanics designer.” He emphasized the importance of crafting the player’s experience, enabling the player to behave freely in a game world, but within purposeful constraints that impart meaning.

Amy Hennig concurred, stressing her belief in authored experiences. “All my favorite games have a definite authorial voice. It is a crafted experience.” For the developer, this requires a “giant act of faith” in your team. It is unrealistic to expect one person to drive a singular vision. A team must build “creative trust and humility” to determine that vision and collectively pursue it.

The Fun Imperative
“In experiential games, we're not necessarily optimizing for fun,” noted Ian Dallas. "The Unfinished Swan is about provoking wonder and curiosity... All factors coalesce to provoke a feel.” This isn't easy to communicate, let alone build. The people building a game can lose track of the big picture over time, he cautioned. "It’s easy to get completely absorbed in day-to-day fixing.” If you're not careful, you can get lost.

Pinchbeck asked how designers should respond to “the pressure within traditional game design to make everything fun.” No other media, he opined, feels the pressure to be entertaining all the time.

Hennig responded that it all comes down to pacing. “Games that try to operate at 11 all the time rely on bombast and spectacle. We need lulls and valleys.” She described the occasionally awkward position she finds herself at Naughty Dog. “We're trying to navigate these issues in a AAA space,” with a lot of money to spend. “Golden shackles,” she said with a smile, admitting that she sometimes envies indie developers’ freedom to experiment. “Audiences react so very differently to what we produce,” she remarked. “We want to craft an experience without letting the player see the strings of the puppeteer too much.” It’s a terribly difficult balancing act.

Peaks and valleys
Chen observed that we remember games with huge peaks and valleys. Designers create acceleration. “Up and down. If I'm a dancer and I'm always going flat, it's boring. But when I go up and down, it's more interesting.” What is fun? We needlessly limit our definition, according to Chen. Good interactive fun can occur in a valley, but “it needs to be beautiful, not broken. Even at the bottom of the arc, it needs to be very well designed.”

“Our games are more meditative” than mainstream games, Dallas said. “We must communicate our values to the player early on, even from the marketing.” But even a quiet game like The Unfinished Swan must take players’ patience into account. Studying players and their behaviors, Dallas believes most will walk in a single direction for 3 seconds before becoming bored. Players need frequent stimulation, so designers must respond creatively. “We put turns in staircases, for example, to address this issue... It sounds stupid and pacifying, but it's a fact of design.”

Chen emphasized the point. “Discovery is a reward for doing something boring, like pushing a stick forward.” (Audience laughter) Something needs to happen that feels interesting. A real desert is mostly flat. Chen and his team created dunes for players to climb and discover something in the process. Each dune must be interesting to climb, not just scenery. It keeps the player engaged.

Pinchbeck remarked “We talk about pace, but we throw everything we have at presentation. People talk about mechanics, but we spend far more time thinking about presentation." The Unfinished Swan and Journey seem to have similar priorities: a sense of place, of wonder, of discovery. Do these trump mechanics in experiential games?

“We called it ‘grameplay’: graphics as gameplay,” Chen said with a laugh. “If Flower doesn't have grass on the ground, it's super boring. Same with sand in Journey." These design elements communicate environment, as well as provide a tactile experience players like. “Discovery is seeing output from your input,” Chen observed. Hennig chimed in, “Like getting your pants wet in Uncharted, which Jenova loved.” “Yes!" Chen replied, "Simple things like that can be better than level design!” (Laughter).

Please interpret
“Interpretation is also interactivity,” noted Hennig. “I’m drawn to the simplicity of Journey and Dear Esther. “This is a world I can discover and interpret. It's like a poem.” She lamented the role of exposition in narrative games. “At Naughty Dog we struggle with exposition and the expectation of exposition.” Players seem to want “every damned thing explained.” Navigating these expectations is her biggest challenge. Drake can deliver a monologue, but it's an inelegant solution. Nevertheless, many players want it, perceiving purposeful ambiguity as a mistake. “People say it's a plot hole, and we're like ‘no, it's not! Interpret it!’”(Laughter) With a game like Uncharted, “you have to play to the people in the front and the people in the balcony.”

Regarding ambiguity, Chen stated that he never tried to make Journey mysterious. “We were trying to connect players on an emotional level.” In real life, people are busy and have many things to do. We rarely connect. Online players assume other players will behave like jerks, so we don’t connect there either. “But in the woods on a trail, you feel very small. Alone. Vulnerable. If you meet another person there, you say hi. We wanted to make the player feel very small and powerless.”

Chen believes this feeling was an essential part of Journey. Players reported the game reminded them of the original Legend of Zelda, a game with no handholding. “We didn't tell the player anything,” noted Chen. Modern games too often rely on checklists and completion to engage the player. Such games are seen as more “game-ish,” than Journey, but they don’t provoke the kind of engagement Chen seeks.

Emergent as experiential?
Pinchbeck wondered about the emergent narratives that multiplayer or open-world games offer. Aren’t these also experiential games? Chen responded that he enjoys playing Call of Duty games and believes they are well designed. In CoD “you get rewards for mechanics.” You just killed three people in one shot, so you get a reward for demonstrating skill. But the narrative campaign modes do not feel experiential. “When I feel a sense of wonder in an FPS, it's always emergent from mechanics. A grenade bounced an unexpected way and did something crazy. That's great, but we don't work in that space. We're trying to craft surprising moments.”

Hennig questioned emergent gameplay as narrative. “Emergent experiences are fun, but I don't see them as story,” she stated. Storytelling in games is tricky business. Players don't have the patience for being stuck. “We walk a razor-thin line between authorial control and player agency. The more you do the second, the more you risk ludonarrative dissonance. Too much of the first, and you feel like you're on rails.”

The pretty imperative
All three panelists agreed the pressure to produce stunning visuals is ever-present in contemporary game design. Indie developers typically target a smaller audience more tolerant of abstraction, and Hennig sees this as a very good thing. “Photorealism is antithetical to game design, she observed. “We bury problem solving in production values. People won't buy our games if they don't think they look awesome. The games that have affected me the most are the most austere. They are like poems... Why can't we affect people emotionally on the level that a Hallmark commercial can do in 30 seconds?"

Pinchbeck wondered if we simply haven't done it well enough. Do poor writing and acting continue to undermine games? Chen sees it differently, returning to simplicity. “In Journey I wake up in the desert and make my way to the mountain. That's the story of Journey. Everything else we added through architecture and discovery.” We must leave a wide space for player interpretation. We need to leave room for the player to dig so the story under the surface will emerge.

What a life


I know a game designer. He is quiet. Absorbed. A bemused observer. The one who notices patterns. The smart kid who sat in the back at school, bored out of his mind.

He is a builder, but for as long as he can remember he's been caught between two conflicting impulses: save the world, or blow it up and make a new one. He lives in the space between, drawn to anarchy, but irritated by disorder.

He believes a robust system can harness chaos, but he knows entropy will play the last card. Still, he stubbornly believes he can win. The triumph of design. The elegant loop. Optimal trumps beautiful. Strike that. Optimal is beautiful.

He does his best work alone. He trusts his instincts, but fears he may be too smart for his own good. His intelligence both enables and alienates him. He lacks the common touch. The winning smile. The self-effacing demeanor. He says the thing that needs to be said, but at the wrong time, or with the wrong inflection. Charm is an awkward chore. He wishes we could skip the diplomacy and just focus on the work.

For him, it's always about the work. Keep your eye on the ball. Leave your pride at the door. Bromides, but valid ones. He lives for incremental progress. The daily grind is the fun part for him. The crashes and roadblocks are his wheelhouse. Eureka moments are lovely, but overrated. He has learned to appreciate the squashed bug that stays dead.

He shares an uneasy relationship with his audience, the player. Without her, his game doesn't exist. He needs her, yet mistrusts her. She will teach him things he needs to know about his game, but what will he teach her? What is she willing to learn? Can he challenge her expectations without losing her? Her confusion will be his mistake. How to balance the urge to please with the resolve to push, to innovate? Sometimes when his mind wanders, he recalls his days in QA. It's definitely better on this side of the fence.

Now he's on an airplane with the latest build on his hard drive. He's headed to an event where he will show and tell and show and tell. He's got the business cards and the pithy description, but his ace is the game, all by itself. Out of the kitchen before it's finished, he'll share it with people he's never met, hoping they will spend a few moments to consider a thing he's risked everything to make. He'll take notes. Maybe he'll get a meeting.

I know a game designer. His work lives in an unreal space. Call him an artist. Or don't. It makes no difference. His game is the thing. File it in whatever cultural drawer you like. I know a game designer. He acts like God. What a life.

Mother dough

Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.
                            –W. H. Auden

BakerAs a teacher and old seasoned gamer, I enjoy playing a simple 2-stage exercise with my students. Here’s how it works. A student describes a game he’s played recently, and I have one minute to identify the game. I can ask as many questions as I can squeeze into 60 seconds, but he is limited to one-word answers. Example:

Q: Is it a shooter?
A: No.
Q: New or old?
A: Old.
Q: After 1990?
A: Yes.
Q: SNES game?
A: Yes.
A: Yes.
Q. Tactical?
A: No.
Q: Square Enix?
A: …Sorta.
Q: Final Fantasy series?
A: No.
Q: Dragon Quest series?
A: No.
Q: Chrono Trigger?
A: Win!

It’s easy if we avoid obscure titles. But here’s where it gets interesting (pedagogically, at least). After I’ve identified the game, the students must collectively pull the game up by its roots. In other words, they must trace the game’s influences (e.g. Chrono Trigger’s active battle system derives from Final Fantasy IV, which used a fixed character class system derived from earlier games like Wizardry, etc.) as far back as they can. As you might expect, most of our electronic trails converge at games like Colossal Cave Adventure, Ultima, and Space Invaders. And yes, Dungeons & Dragons is Kevin Bacon.

Mario_shoeThe real goal of this exercise is to examine the game design process as an ongoing series of evolutionary steps emanating from pillar games that establish mechanical standards or paradigms. If we understand a game’s roots, we better understand how and why that game functions as it does. Or as my uncle advised me many years ago, you haven’t really met a girl until you’ve met her parents.

Historians have typically relied on a branching tree metaphor to illustrate this evolution, but (stick with me here) I think bread-making is a more apt metaphor. Let me explain.

Artisan bread-makers use a starter dough - a yeast-bacteria culture often called the “Mother dough” - to initiate the crucial fermentation process before kneading and baking, giving the bread a distinctively complex flavor. The Boudin Bakery in San Francisco, for example, has drawn from the same Mother dough culture for over 150 years. So when you bite into their sourdough bread, you are truly eating from the same batch of Mother dough brewed by the Boudin family in 1849.

Different types of Mother dough produce very different kinds of bread. I like this analogy because it suggests the game design process is less about branching from a fixed trunk and more about producing recipes and variations of recipes from identifiable organic cultures. You can taste the presence of the Mother dough in every variation of bread made from it.

DonkeyKDonkey Kong is platformer mother dough. Defender is side-scrolling shooter mother dough. One way of understanding later games - Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man, for example - is to see them mixing both recipes, but in different ratios. Both rely heavily on DK, but MM contains a cup of Defender, and SMB only a tablespoon.

I’ll try not to over-extend this food metaphor, but I hope you see what I’m getting at. To fully comprehend modern games like Trine (2D multiplayer action platform puzzler) or Spelunky (2D roguelike dungeon-crawling platformer), we must see them as complex concoctions with many flavoring agents (music, art style, etc.) drawing from identifiable mechanical cores. If you can taste or feel Thief while playing Mark of the Ninja, you are communing with Executive Chef/Lead Designer Nels Anderson on an essential level. It’s in there and your connection to it is more than intellectual.

Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
                -Three is a Magic Number, Schoolhouse Rock

I’ve been thinking about bread and games and threes lately. Tending to an ill family member (on the mend, happily) left me with hours of time to kill in the hospital, so I played a lot of handheld and iOS games. If you spend any time perusing the App Store library, you’ll quickly discover a cavalcade of Match–3 games that draw their inspiration from Bejeweled. There are dozens of them.

One way of seeing these games is to dismiss them as derivative cash-ins aimed at the casual crowd. Plenty of Bejeweled clones deserve such contempt, especially those that do nothing more than re-skin the original. But what exactly is the original? Is Bejeweled Mother dough?

The answer is no, not even close. Matching tile games predate Bejeweled (2001) by nearly 20 years, including games like Panel de Pon (1995), Dr. Mario (1990), and Tetris (1985). And those are just the electronic games. If we got serious about this, we’d probably wind up back at Tic Tac Toe.1

Mother dough or not, I’m fascinated by Bejeweled as a recipe for designers to fuse or blend with other genres. If you’re interested in the iterative process of conceptual design, the games below are mini-case studies for how to successfully commingle genres, leveraging the familiar while producing something new and fun to play.

Puzzle Quest - Tile-matching strategy RPG (2007)

Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes - Tile-matching adventure RPG (2009)

WarGames WOPR - Tile-matching tactical war sim (2012)

Puzzle Craft - Tile-matching city-building sim (2012)

10000000 - Tile matching dungeon crawler (2012)

None of these games pioneer or revolutionize game design. At a glance, they all look the same; but they aren't. Each cleverly repurposes stalwart genres, forging something new enough and different enough to be worth playing. If games are like recipes handed down and modified over the years, these games let you smell the bread baking.

1. If you’re curious about the history of matching tile games, Jesper Juul produced one in 2007, and it’s typical of his work: carefully researched and comprehensive. I recommend it.