The Gray Lady has spoken, and video games are apparently sufficiently interesting to merit op-ed column space. I suppose we could derisively dismiss this with a sardonic "it's about damn time." But instead I'll simply observe that traditional media outlets like the New York Times are rarely first to the fire when it comes to emergent culture, and there's no reason to expect video games to be treated any differently...even if they've been around for over 30 years.
In a piece called The Play's the Thing, op-ed contributor Daniel Radosh writes that if video games are ever to reach the level of artistry and narrative sophistication of the cinema:
...games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and
romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for
mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual
Appropriating the language of cinema has made games successful as
entertainment. The best video games are more inventive, exciting and
rewarding than most summer action movies...But “Transformers” is not what we have in mind when we talk about the art
of cinema. Film achieves its artistic potential by offering experiences
that are emotionally and aesthetically profound — stories that resonate
deep inside us, reveal truths about humanity, and alter our perception
of the world. It’s hard to think of a single video game that can match
the artistic accomplishments of the most mediocre Oscar bait.
I find it difficult to argue with Radosh's prescription, but I'm even more drawn by a related statement he makes on his blog:
Here's what's wrong with the MSM [mainstream media]: There's brutal repression in
Burma, children without health insurance, and a war against
Islamofascism — and the New York Times op-ed page devotes 900 words to Halo 3. Sure, I wrote the damn thing, but where were the grown-ups who should have stopped me?
Hmm. Maybe what we really ought to wonder is: where are the video games that address political repression, poverty, or fascism in a meaningful way? Are they yet to come, or are such subjects beyond the scope of what's possible in a "game"?
Maybe that's an op-ed piece for another day.
Update: Daniel Radosh, author of the NYTimes piece, has commented on this post and provided a useful link to a Times article that addresses my question. Click on "comments" below to read his post and my reply.
Episode 3 will be released this weekend. If you have any questions or comments you'd like me to address on the podcast, send them to me at email@example.com. If you prefer the sound of your own voice, feel free to send me an mp3 file with your comment or question, and I'll include it in the podcast.
I finally finished Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 today (I'm a very SLOW player of RPGs), and I am reeling from it. This Atlus-developed game puts all the pieces of a modern RPG together in a thrilling and singular experience. It's a unique and inspired blend of stark contrasts: darkness and light, J-Pop and dementia, epic heroism and trivial high school politics. There is simply no game like it.
Traditional RPGers will love the revisions to the genre, particularly the persona forging system and the radiant art direction. Players new to the genre--or those who have grown tired of the repetitive grind of many Japanese RPGs--will find Persona 3 a welcome demolition of the standard medieval/fantasy clichés.
There's much more to say about Persona 3. I'll discuss it in greater detail on my next podcast coming very soon. In the meantime, if you haven't tried Persona 3, by all means give it a whirl. Enchantment awaits you.
Rick at Surreal Game Design has posted a two-part essay that explores his own predilection for Japanese games. It's an interesting take on the pivotal differences, not so much in terms of design issues (though these matter, of course), but in terms of how these games make us feel when we play them. Among the reasons most western games have lost their appeal:
Western Storytelling is Stale. Some of you may hate
the writing that comes out of the East, and that’s fine… it’s a mater
of taste...The big deal, to me, is that it seems like we’re only
writing modern war and horror stories in the West any more… Well, God of War and Oblivion at least do fantasy, and GTA has its niche, so all hope is not lost… but for every one of those there are four CoDs, Halos, Metal of Honors, and Half-Lives.
It feels like they’re all war stories! Sometimes people shoot each
other with an M1 Garand, and sometimes they use lasers. Sometimes they
shoot aliens rather than Nazi’s. But in the end, it all feels the same
to me. (Caveat: This is FAR more endemic to the top Western titles than all Western titles.)
I must say that I agree with Rick, especially in the last few years. I think he may overlook the unvarying grind mechanic of many Japanese RPGs, but titles like Persona 3 and Odin Sphere always seem to emerge, breaking or significantly stretching the genre limits.
I'm sure Halo 3 will be lots of fun (haven't played it yet myself), but is anyone else hoping for a top-tier western title that isn't about guns and war?
We're always looking for the next big thing in video games. Halo 3 arrives tomorrow, and it will be big. More amazing footage from Metal Gear 4 was shown at the Tokyo Game Show this week, and it will be big. Those who have seen Super Mario Galaxy say it will further redefine the platform genre, and it will be big.
Taking nothing away from these titles, they will provide gamers with more of the same. This "same" will undoubtedly be an enhanced "same" with amazing new gameplay features and cool extras to please loyal fans. But they will all continue within their familiar existing frameworks, and why shouldn't they? They're terrific games that each do what they do extraordinarily well.
So where do we look for the next big thing? It's becoming increasingly evident that the creative edge in video games is closer to us than we realize. The next big thing is us.
In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins highlights the rise of what he calls "grassroots creativity," by observing:
"When Amazon introduced DVDs of George Lucas in Love(1999), perhaps the best known of the [homemade] Star Wars parodies, it
outsold the DVD of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in its
The emergence of grassroots creativity in video games is by no means a recent phenomenon. Player-created mods, machinima, fanzines, fan-art, fan-fiction--all have provided creative outlets for players to contribute original content for games they love. Developers like Valve, id, and Bethesda go out of their way to support gamers with extensive tools and documentation, and gamers have responded, often with total conversions containing entirely original assets. If you've seen Lara Croft nude, you have a modder to thank for that.
Games like Will Wright's forthcoming (someday) Spore and Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet take grassroots creativity a step further by integrating user-created content into the core gameplay experience. According to their developers, these games will give players unprecedented dynamic control over the creation and manipulation of characters and environments. You can be artistic, whimsical, silly, or sadistic and spend hours creating a character or environment that reflects those design approaches.
The key innovation here is that you can share those creations with other players via the internet, and those other players can integrate your work into their own, and vice versa. This makes you, in a very real sense, part of a collaborative community of artists. Video games have never been here before. This is new. This matters.
Another recent announcement may represent an even bigger advance. Last week designer/poet/entrepreneur Raph Koster finally unveiled his long-awaited secret project: Metaplace. According to the official website:
Our motto is: build anything, play everything, from anywhere. Until
now, virtual worlds have all worked like the closed online services
from before the internet took off. They had custom clients talking to
custom servers, and users couldn't do much of anything to change their
experience. We're out to change all of that.
Metaplace is a
next-generation virtual worlds platform designed to work the way the
Web does. Instead of giant custom clients and huge downloads, Metaplace
lets you play the same game on any platform that reads our open client
standard. We supply a suite of tools so you can make worlds, and we
host servers for you so that anyone can connect and play. And the
client could be anywhere on the Web.
You can watch Koster demoing the project here:
Veterans of the vaporware wars will warn us that we must be careful not to get too excited about pre-release hype. We've seen very little of Spore, LitttleBigPlanet, or Metaplace, and it seems clear that the long development process for each owes to an unusually high degree of programming complexity. Fair enough. But the promise of these games is immense. They represent the first true manifestation of grassroots creativity in video games. If even one of them fulfills its promise, we will witness a turning point in the history of video games.
Chinese citizens worried about terrorists capable of respawning from death and armed with two magazines of ammunition, a knife, a pistol and $800 apiece can now rest easy. The Chinese government is using Counter-Strike to sharpen the anti-terrorist skills of Tianjin’s police force. From The People's Daily:
Han Zhen, a tactical instructor of
Tianjin police, found the game very helpful. "Given its close
resemblance to real-life scenarios, the game greatly enhances the
terrorism awareness of our officers," the five-year veteran gamer said.
"And it is very important as terrorism has become a global issue.
"In particular, it trains our officers in the use of weapons and taking
advantage of different terrains, and is also a test of mental strength
in a duel with a terrorist," said Han. Above him a red banner
proclaimed: "Enhancing police forces through technology".
When they get their hands on Halo 3, the police will apparently be ready for anything that comes at them from now until 2552.
Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Space Channel 5, Lumines) has been all over the gaming news lately. A hi-def version of Rez is coming soon. He's constantly being pestered about a possible sequel to Space Channel 5 (a Wii version may be in the works). And he created the stunning opening sequence for the Live Earth event in Japan, featuring a holographic Al Gore (video here).
The real evidence of Mizuguchi's impact on gaming, however, can be found in the growing list of games by other designers inspired by Mizuguchi's style. Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter and PomPom's forthcoming Mutant Storm Empire are two good examples of brand new games that owe their very existence to Mizuguchi's signature blending of music, colorful trippy visuals, and fast-paced play.
Mizuguchi calls this design motif "synaesthesia," referring to the neurological condition wherein one sensory experience can trigger an automatic involuntary response from another sensory pathway, e.g. hearing colors or tasting shapes. Mizuguchi even attempted to enhance this experience in Rez by offering an optional Trance Vibrator Peripheral (insert naughty snicker here).
Mizuguchi recalled his inspiration for Rez in an interview with Gamespot UK:
I had many inspirations for Rez, particularly from rave culture. When I
first saw a rave party in about 1993 there were many people dancing,
and it was like they were jumping in time to the music. I had a big,
big flash, and suddenly I just remembered about the concept of
synaesthesia. I studied Kandinsky at university, so this concept came
into my brain and it took three or four years to think about making a
game around this concept, and it was a long journey.
And here's where it gets interesting. Kandinsky the abstract artist was interested in synaesthesia too and tried to capture something of the essence of it in his work. Mizuguchi brings his trance/rave sensibility to Kandinsky, bearing Rez. Which in turn stimulates Jonathan Mak, whose Everyday Shooter incorporates the music and visuals of Mizuguchi, but not the gameplay. The gameplay comes from somewhere else. Anyone who plays Everyday Shooter is bound to say, "Ah, this is the PS3's answer to Geometry Wars, which, of course, it is. But then Geometry Wars is really just Robotron with, you guessed it, cool music and trippy visuals. 2007 meets 1982 meets 1923.
I'm purposely leaving out any discussion of Wipeout or Killer 7 here because it all just gets too confusing.
At the risk of venturing into a place everyone is sick of going--games as art--I would suggest that this cross-fertilization of ideas and aesthetics is one of the hallmarks of art. It's essentially how art happens. Whether or not you like Rez is beside the point. I'm not terribly crazy about Kandinsky myself. But I would never for a moment doubt his credentials as an artist. Mizuguchi deserves no less respect.
Good games are built to engage us and keep us playing. How do they do that? Danc over at Lost Garden has devoted considerable thought to this question and has written a compelling and very readable essay that attempts an answer.
"At the heart of every game are these mysterious whirring clicking mechanisms that deliver to the player pleasure and thrills."
He goes on to discuss feedback loops, humans as "infovores" and burnout vs. grinding. He even includes a cool color diagram! The essay originally appeared last year, but it's well worth your time and full of useful insights. If you've read Ralph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design, this essay is a useful extension of that.
Hey kids, it's time for the first Brainy Gamer Quiz. Send the correct answer to firstname.lastname@example.org and you will earn the grudging respect of brainy gamers worldwide (I have yet to receive a visitor or subscriber from Antarctica--all other continents are represented!). I will announce the winner's name on the blog...and I may even send you a little something for your efforts.
Explain the connection between these 3 men:
I'm starting with a tough one to see what you're made of. If no one gets it right, I'll post a clue or two to help you. Good luck!
Update: After several wild guess submissions (including one by Jacobus that was way wrong, but way funny) we have a winner! Steve from East Schodack NY got it right, and even drew my attention to the fact that the photo of Eugene Jarvis in the center contains two hands that do not belong to Jarvis. Brainy Gamer salute!
Watch for my next post, which will explain how Steve connected all the dots in this crazy lineage of synaesthesia.