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January 2008

Please don't toy with my emotions

[Thanks to N'Gai Croal for linking to this piece on his Newsweek column Level Up]

"The most important thing in acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made." --George Burns


I've been looking at the latest "Inside Lionhead" video diaries released by Lionhead Studios tracking the progress of Fable 2 development. These are also available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace. According to the company:

These diaries are created by our community manager Sam Van Tilburgh and aren’t overly produced marketing videos. This is the real thing: honest, pure and simple.

I'm not sure how Molyneux and company define 'honest, pure and simple,' but those aren't exactly the words that leapt to mind as I watched these documentary-style infomercials. Lubricious and self-promoting are more accurate descriptors, but that's not to say they aren't also interesting and entertaining. 

Clearly the real purpose of these videos is to generate hype for Fable 2 slated for release later this year. Lionhead (owned by Microsoft) has a product to sell, and they want us to know about it. Fair enough. My concern is that these videos--and the way they are being pitched--suggest that Lionhead is bent on continuing down a road it has traveled for many years now - a road with lots of traffic and pretty scenery, but leading nowhere. On this road, pre-scripted events and limited pathways are disguised as freedom; multiple-choice NPC interactions are disguised as romance; and disfiguring your avatar with scars is disguised as morality.

Molyneux says Fable 2 will be different because it focuses on real emotion. He has been talking about emotion in video games since last year's Game Developers Conference, and when Molyneux talks about emotion, he's not just talking about old RPG standbys like fear, excitement, and suspense.  He says Fable 2 will also make you feel loved.

This is my bold claim - I need you to experience something in Fable that you as gamers have never experienced before...Everybody is talking about emotion, story, engagement and narrative. We have tried to approach it in a different way. We are going to explore love.[1]

At GDC he unveiled the groundbreaking design element that he claims will set Fable 2 apart from all other games: a dog. According to Molyneux, the dog will be the delivery device for the love. If you begin to enjoy your dog - if you show him even the least affection in the game, then, says Molyneux, "we're going to mess with your mind."[2]

I think Molyneux is barking up the wrong tree (sorry, I couldn't help myself). He and his programmers are working overtime on a game engine that will attempt to produce a feeling of love stemming from in-game actions and choices by the player triggering a complex set of algorithms. As senior programmer Jonathan Shaw states in video diary 1:

Because we deal with love every day in our lives, and it's something we recognize and are very intimate with, if it's faked on screen it can be very jarring, obviously it's wrong, so it's very difficult to get that right. As we get more processing power, the AI will indeed get more sophisticated, and we'll be able to track a lot more variables and we'll be able to do a lot more with it. So a lot of the ambitions we had for Fable 1 which we weren't quite able to put in we are bringing back into Fable 2.

So in order to produce a genuine emotional response from the player, Molyneux and his team are trying to figure out a way to fake it so well that it will seem real.

I have a better idea. Why not tell a good story? Why not raise the emotional stakes by allowing the player to actually assume a role, rather than tag around a pre-scripted character with limited autonomy?

The great secret illustrated by games like Planescape: Torment and Chrono Trigger is that players don't really want to play characters; they want to behave more like actors. They want to assume the role of a complex and motivated character, but once inside that character they will continue to see the world through their own eyes. This empathic symbiotic relationship between actor and character is essential--it's what makes Branaugh's Hamlet radically different from Olivier's, even though they speak the same lines--and it's what makes a proper RPG tick.

Molyneux believes this experience can be delivered by a virtual dog.

One other segment of the video diaries is telling. Creative Director Dene Carter observes:

If you look at the history of other visual media--cinema, for example--the addition of love and emotive content has been a really big deal. If you look at Charlie Chaplin, he introduced emotion into a film called The Kid, and suddenly cinema was elevated to a new form of art.

D.W. Griffith might have a bit to say about Carter's grasp of film history, but that aside, it's interesting how Carter characterizes Chaplin's work on The Kid as if it were a kind of chemistry lab experiment. Add a dash of emotion to the slapstick and voila, Art!

What Chaplin really understood was that a filmmaker can convey great emotion--in the case of The Kid one might describe it as sentimentality--through an engaging story with compelling characters delivered by convincing actors. Genuine emotion can't simply be injected into a film. It emerges as the result of other dramatic elements. In other  words, like laughter, empathy must be earned.

Maybe Fable 2 will prove me wrong, but I don't think a dog will be enough.

How young is too young for video games?

Babypeach Assessing the impact of media on kids and adolescents is very tricky business. I sometimes assign my students the task of arguing the positive or negative effects, and they quickly discover it's fairly easy to build a convincing case for either side, regardless of their personal beliefs. I suppose nearly every games blogger has written on the subject in one way or another, including me (probably too often) here, here, and here.

Less murky, however, is the growing evidence suggesting that babies younger than 2 years old should be kept away from video altogether. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 2 be restricted from television viewing, citing studies that suggest a negative impact on early brain development. Research indicates that watching videos may lead to ADHD later in childhood and restrict the amount of time a baby spends interacting with and exploring her environment.[1]

Interestingly, Disney's Baby Einstein, and the So Smart series continue to market DVDs designed for babies, and DirecTV has a 24-hour channel specifically targeted at infants called BabyFirstTV. I've never seen any of these products, so I can't comment on them, other than to say they all profess to be "award-winning."

So what about video games? How early should kids be introduced to them, and which ones should they play? There is surprisingly little information available on the subject. We've all seen the toddlers playing Wii Tennis and Bowling on YouTube, and they certainly seem to enjoy it. What about handheld games or computer games specifically designed to teach spelling and math, for example?

When it comes to parenting a 15-year-old gamer, I have more ratings, warnings, research, and opinions than I can possibly use. But I confess I'm at a loss with our new baby girl. I know she won't be playing Super Mario Galaxy any time soon, but at some point...well, let's just say I can't wait for the day when she collects those star bits for me and bops those goombas on the head! The question is, when?

If you have ideas or personal stories about children and video games, I'd love to hear them.

Update: Alec at Castle in the Air has written a most thoughtful essay on this very subject. I encourage you to read it here.

Where's the hate?

171507_illidan When smart bloggers with smart readers ask smart questions, interesting conversations frequently ensue. Such is the case with Timothy Burke's essay Foozles I Have Known, Quests I Have Done which appears on virtual worlds blog Terra Nova.

Burke is interested in villain NPCs and why they're, well, so un-detestable:

I have a hard time thinking of NPC antagonists in virtual worlds who inspire any kind of emotional reaction which is a part of the gameworld itself as opposed to within the outside framework of guild or player sociality. This is partly because nothing that these NPCs do has any dynamic consequence to the gameworld itself...It's hard to get too worked up about Illidan in World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade, for example. Even within the context of Outland, it's not altogether very clear what Illidan has done that makes him an enemy to players besides being a big fat (if very challenging) loot pinata.

Burke goes on to pose two useful questions that attempt to address the problem:

1) Is there anything that a boss or major NPC could do in game-fictional terms within the current conventions of most virtual worlds that might make players feel a strong emotional desire to defeat that boss?

2) Are there stock structures or types of reasonably implementable quests which might be: a) more emotionally engaging than the current range of stock quests and b) a good way to diversify the current range of stock quests?

By itself, Burke's essay provokes considerable thought about the role of NPCs in video games, but his Terra Nova post is made immeasurably more valuable by the many thoughtful responses from readers that follow.

I love it when blogs promote vigorous conversations within the communities they form, and I'm grateful for the many times it's happened here. It always feels like a sort of virtual cocktail party...minus the awkwardness and the ugly drunk in the corner. I think you'll enjoy the mixer Burke is hosting over at Terra Nova.

Aquaria - it's all about the vibe

Screenshot_aquaria I was playing Aquaria yesterday when my wife Jennifer walked into the room and asked "what's that game?" Now this may seem a trivial question to you, but to me it was a momentous event. I play a *lot* of video games. I don't finish many, and I can't say I enjoy most of them, but I try to keep up with the latest releases as best I can. Despite all the gaming that goes on in this house, Jennifer has never once asked me, "what's that game?"

It gets better. I told her it was an independent game called Aquaria and offered to show it to her. She was interested. Another milestone. I spent five minutes or so swimming around and playing musical notes. She was fascinated. She said she liked the music and the water. At the end I asked her if she was interested in giving it a try...and she said yes. Yahtzee!!

Today I decided to follow up and find out what interested her in Aquaria. Her response was straightforward. "Most games you play all look the same to me. You're looking down from above on some guy running around with a gun. This one is  different. I like the way it looks and sounds."

She's casual and I'm hardcore, but her response to Aquaria captures my feeling about this game exactly. I like the way it looks and sounds. I like its style. For lack of a better word, I like its vibe.

So what the heck is vibe, and how do you get it into a game? I think Aquaria has a few valuable lessons.

  • One thing you don't need is originality. Aquaria is a clever mash-up of design elements from Metroid, Zelda, Ecco the Dolphin, and the LucasArts adventure Loom. Vibe comes from what you do with these elements - how you spin them to serve your own goals and dress them up in Aquaria clothes. If the spin is clever and fun enough, we'll quickly forgive the derivative design.

  • Make your character pop. Aquaria's designers have done many little things to personalize Naija, adding style and flair to her appearance and movement. Color matters in this game, and it's used purposefully. Naija is an aqua-green-skinned elfish girl with white hair. She fits into her underwater environment perfectly, but her hair starkly distinguishes her from other sea creatures, making her seem both of the sea and from outside it. That white hair also makes her easier to track when the action gets frenetic.

    When Naija swims, small bubbles trail in her wake, then slowly disappear. As she glides through the water, she sometimes casually pulls one arm behind her head as if striking a pose. Very nice little touch. If you stop moving her, she floats upright in the water, periodically flapping her arms and legs to maintain her position. She blinks her eyes, and her cape subtly waves with the water current. The camera very slowly zooms into her as if to say, "I'm your girl. Let's go."

  • Music is key to vibe. Give it a signature. Integrate it with gameplay, if possible, and provide the player some control. Don't just think jukebox. Also think karaoke. Less Final Fantasy cinematic and more Rez interactive. Game music typically conveys mood and environment, underscores action, and establishes locale and character motifs. That's how movies use music too. Video games can do more, and Aquaria is a good example of how that can work.

  • If you've created a visual and sonic vibe, be sure to let the player play in it. Aquaria's sumptuous and colorful environments beg to be explored with no pressure to accomplish anything. Naija controls so beautifully--with a mouse, keyboard or gamepad--that there's joy to be had simply swimming around. Let the player soak up the vibe. In my case, I use these playful interludes to make up little tunes with Naija's wheel.

  • Use actors who understand the vibe you're going for. In the movies, Cate Blanchett does this better than anyone. She can be soft, imperious, seductive, mysterious--whatever the role requires--and she accomplishes much of this through her voice. In Aquaria, Naija is voiced by an actress named Jenna Sharpe whose characterization is entrancing. Maybe I'm a softy for a breathy English accent, but Ms. Sharpe's evocative rendition fits the world of the game perfectly.

None of this has much to do with level design or narrative or gameplay mechanics. These are competently handled in Aquaria, but they aren't what really matter. What draws you into Aquaria's underwater world and keeps you there--what matters--is the vibe.

Social commentary by Mega Man

Screenshot9_2 Clear evidence that video games have penetrated our cultural consciousness can be found everywhere. TV commercials for soft drinks, sneakers, and cars are shot to look like video games. Middle-aged adults can be found playing games to improve their brain power. Schools are using games to teach children. My father-in-law is a computer baseball simulator, and my mother-in-law is hooked on Wii Bowling. Our cultural awareness of video games has never been more pervasive.

So it should come as no surprise that video games are also being used as a vehicle for social commentary.

Robert Dziekanski was a Polish immigrant who died after being Tasered by police at the Vancouver International Airport last October. The incident, which was captured on video, sparked debate over police tactics and resulted in several investigations into the use of force by Mounties and the behavior of airport officials.

Spurred by the controversy, Vancouver resident Mike Greenway created a video depicting the incident and posted it on YouTube. Entitled "Megaman vs. Polish Immigrant," the video borrows visual and sound assets from Megaman for the NES, and superimposes Dziekanski's face onto a character that is eventually shot by Megaman. This is preceded by a menu screen that offers three options: 1)USE RESTRAINT; 2) CALL A TRANSLATOR; 3) TASER MERCILESSLY. The video depicts the player choosing option 3, and the Dziekanski character is shot with Mega Man's "Mega Buster" gun. After the victim is down, Mega Man pauses for approximately 15 seconds and then proceeds to shoot him several more times.

Greenway's video has been viewed over 100,00 times on YouTube and has sparked controversy in the Canadian media. Some, including a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have called the video offensive and asked for its removal. Greenway says he has received several threatening emails.

In my view, Greenway should be commended for using his best civic voice to express outrage over the use of excessive force by the RCMP. Greenway's voice--his toolset in this case-- is the medium of video games, and he has chosen to leverage his facility with that medium to voice a concern he has every right to express. If Greenway was a cartoonist or a novelist or a stand-up comedian, it's likely he would have chosen one of those forms of communication. Greenway is a modder. He expressed his view by creating a game mod.

Those who have misinterpreted Greenway's video as a trivialization of Dziekanski's death are correct only if we agree that video games are a trivial medium. If we reject that characterization, then we can see Greenway's work for what it is: a biting piece of social commentary, an artful satirical swipe at a powerful institution. At issue here (among many other concerns raised by this incident) is the viability of video games (or in this case, modified video game footage) as a legitimate mode of communication.

Greenway's video and the original airport video are both included below. Please note that the airport video contains some violent images. You can read more about the Dziekanski case and the controversy surrounding Greenway's video here and here.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 7

Girlturnonradio Game of the year (why can't we all just get along?); the NY Times gets it wrong...again; 5 great games nobody bought; the Zoe Garcia story; and listener email - all in this edition of The Brainy Gamer Podcast!

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes by clicking here.
  • Download the podcast here. (right-click and choose save)

I mention Aquaria in the podcast. You can download a demo of it here.

Spreading the love: GOTY edition

Videoawardshelf When it's time to hand out awards, one sign of a moribund industry is broad consensus about which book, movie, play, album, etc. deserves to be chosen as best. Last year's Tony Awards are a good example.

Tom Stoppard's play The Coast of Utopia won seven Tonys, the most ever by a non-musical. Taking nothing away from Stoppard's fine work, a big reason it won so many awards is because it faced so little competition. The other nominees all had rather short runs and were seen by relatively few people. Seven Tonys for one play says more about the sad state of non-musicals on Broadway, unfortunately, than about the quality of Stoppard's 9-hour opus.

Happily, the game industry faces no such problem. While we can argue about the current state of video games--economic, social, cultural, artistic, etc.--the obvious lack of consensus about which game deserves recognition as "best" suggests a vigorous and healthy condition.

To prove the point, here's a roundup of magazine, website, and blog choices for best overall game of 2007. This list is by no means comprehensive, of course, but it does convey a sense of the variety of opinions  among reviewers.

  • Gamespot: Super Mario Galaxy
  • Gamespy: Call of Duty 4
  • Joystiq: Portal
  • Kotaku: Super Mario Galaxy (near-tie with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune)
  • Destructoid: Bioshock
  • Games Radar: The Orange Box
  • X-Play: Bioshock
  • Time Magazine: Halo 3
  • Associated Press: Bioshock
  • MTV Online: Desktop Tower Defense
  • Bioshock
  • Maxim: Call of Duty 4
  • Yahoo Games: Super Mario Galaxy
  • The Telegraph UK: Bioshock
  • Edge Magazine: Super Mario Galaxy
  • Eurogamer: Portal
  • GamerTrailers: Super Mario Galaxy
  • WorthPlaying: Bioshock
  • Gamasutra: Portal
  • Game Developer Magazine: Portal
  • UGO: Call of Duty 4

A quick tally from the above sources:

Bioshock - 6
Super Mario Galaxy - 5
Portal / The Orange Box - 5
Call of Duty 4 - 3

Other games like Halo 3, Drake's Fortune, Puzzle Quest, and Guitar Hero 3 received top nods from sites not listed.

2007 was clearly a year with many good and several outstanding games. Let's hope 2008 is similarly confounding for consensus seekers.