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February 2008

Critics don't need thumbs

Rockwell_critic_2 When I ask students to reflect on a film or play and express those thoughts in writing, they nearly always produce something that looks like a review. I liked it or didn't like it. Thumbs up or down. Three stars. To most of them, this is how a critic engages with art.

I label this approach "Ebertism" (an admittedly unfair swipe at Roger Ebert) because it functions as a kind of consumer report. Students typically misinterpret the assignment because they operate under the impression that a critic's job is to help me decide how to spend my money. They mistake a critique for a review, and why shouldn't they? Reviewer and critic are interchangeable terms to most people, and we don't spend much time sorting out the differences.

Greg Costikyan is attempting to do just that. Costikyan has developed a reputation as the game industry's "voice of cynicism and despair." While his tone can sometimes be needlessly hostile or patronizing, he can usually be relied on to point at the thing that needs to be pointed at. Lately, he's been pointing at game criticism, and I think he offers a useful perspective. Costikyan draws an important set of distinctions between game criticism and game reviews.

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.

Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator's previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).

You can read all of Costikyan's essay here.

I find Costikyan's description of a critic's role useful, but I think another role exists in the dynamic relationship between artist and audience - one that is neither reviewer nor critic, but operates somewhere between the two. In the theater we call this person a dramaturg.

A dramaturg is a servant of the creative process. While not an artist, he or she works collaboratively with the playwright, directors, and designers as a kind of critic in residence. A dramaturg helps an artist see the work in context with whatever the team decides matters: history, aesthetics, verisimilitude, translation. He or she functions as a conduit between the artists and the play itself, and also between the production and the audience. In a way, the dramaturg is the defender of the core mission, keeping everyone's eye on the ball, helping unify the vision, and helping pave the way for an audience to receive and understand it.

Is there a video game analog to the dramaturg? Does the lead developer on a project take on this role? Is such a thing seen as even necessary? I'm curious to know. It's quite possible to make good theater without a dramaturg, but over the last 50 years we've come to see this person as a highly valuable and necessary part of the production team. I realize video  games are produced very differently, of course, but I wonder if such a person exists or would be perceived as valuable in the video game industry?

Save game now

Mystery_house_3 On January 1 of this year, a project designed to preserve digital games and their related materials was launched by four universities, funded by the Library of Congress' Preserving Creative America program.

Henry Lowood, curator and professor at Stanford University, spoke about this vital effort at GDC last week and conducted a roundtable discussion to "explore ways to rescue and preserve the endangered titles of digital gaming's history." The discussion focused on preservation of older games, fast becoming extinct, as well as identifying the best ways to archive new games produced today.

Wisely, the project aims at more than simply archiving data. We must be able to access and play these games as they were designed to be experienced. From the project's proposal document:

Electronic literature, video games and computer games must be understood as creative, born digital works with distinctive aesthetic qualities that not only take advantage of digital technologies but also push the limits of digital media. These works are typically more experimental and diverse than other kinds of born-digital artifacts more familiar to libraries at this point—for example, digital documents. Electronic literature and digital games provide new kinds of test-beds for digital preservation. Addressing the problem of their preservation means preparing for a future in which an increasing proportion of what we create will be born-digital and will take fuller advantage of networked, new-media environments.

These virtual worlds are actualized in user experiences that are sometimes unique, often social, and always necessary for understanding these worlds. Just as an archived book is of limited use if researchers cannot open its cover and read it, an archived world will be of limited use if researchers cannot visit it. Unless we also develop solutions for preserving user experiences, future generations will have no way to understand how these experiences became such an important part of our culture.

Furthermore, the project aims to develop a system of "wrapping" these games in an "information package" designed to provide future users with vital materials and requisite technology to access and play these games. It's important to archive a piece of interactive fiction, for example, but without the proper interpreter and accompanying box materials future users may be unable to access the game or understand it in its full context.

History teaches hard lessons. Approximately 50-75% of all films made during the silent era have been lost forever. This sad reality stems from two conditions, both of which could have been addressed with intervention :  1) Early motion pictures were shot on nitrate film, which was extremely unstable and flammable. 2) Many films were destroyed because they were perceived to have little or no value.

There are obvious analogs between the dangers faced by silent films and the situation we face today with early video games. The media these games relied on is fast disappearing or obsolete, the hardware required to run them may no longer be functional, and many of the original developers are gone. The low value our culture places on these early games only exacerbates the problem, as does IP ownership conflicts that emerge with various titles and franchises.

Lowood and his team are to be commended for their work on this vital project. You can find out more about the game preservation initiative here.

Give us what we want - games without guns

Wolfenstein3d This is the last of three posts on this topic. To get up to speed, I encourage you to read the first two essays here and here.

In my last post I described the roundtable on conflict resolution as the most interesting session I attended at GDC. It was also the most frustrating, mainly due to the format – an open forum on a complex topic with far too many people offering suggestions or observations. Lots of interesting ideas emerged, but none were adequately explored, and time expired before we could make headway in any direction. Certainly, no one was foolish enough to think we would accomplish anything concrete, but identifying a thread or two and exploring them in more depth might have been more productive.

Nevertheless, a variety of ideas and observations emerged from a range of designers and enthusiasts. A consensus formed around the idea that narrative games are mired in a self-limiting shooter mechanic that unnecessarily restricts a player's options when it comes to dealing with conflict. Not everyone agrees with this premise (see comments on my previous two posts), but I think it's a valid and salient point, and one that speaks to my growing frustration with the juvenile ways most games attempt to engage me in their interactive stories. So what to do?

A few notes from the roundtable discussion:

  • One of our jobs as developers is to make the player feel clever. Let the player determine the best way to solve a conflict problem, rather than merely accepting the single option presented.
  • Expand the range of choices to include ones that don't involve violence, and make the results of those choices uniquely rewarding.
  • Using language to resolve conflict is hard for games to do. Some people like branching dialogue trees; others hate them. Conversation can be much more interesting in a multiplayer scenario when players must negotiate on their own. How can games implement this dynamic? What lessons we can learn from strategy games in this regard?
  • Armies very rarely win by wiping out the enemy completely. Most games only allow you to proceed after you've killed every single enemy. Why can't games incorporate a more strategic aspect to combat that enables victory without annihilation?
  • One way to avoid combat is to convert the enemy to your side. This could be an interesting mechanic to incorporate into gameplay, especially if it involved strategic negotiation.
  • Conversation before combat could enhance options. Intimidation, bluffing, bribing...all would make interesting options. If they fail, it's time to fight. If they succeed, you've saved lives.
  • Stealth can be fun, though the novelty of this mode of play may be worn out. Need new ideas. What will MGS4 do this time?
  • Fleeing is an underrated and under-utilized option. Consider how movies handle this action. Make running away a thrill-ride with big obstacles, and players will more likely choose it. Make it a test of skill.

One reason games don't often deal with conflict cleverly is because they so frequently focus on simple-minded scenarios. Wolfenstein has no gray areas. Kill Nazis. Reload. Kill Nazis. That was fun in 1992...and it's still fun today. But how much do we really have to show for the last 15 years?

I want to see a game that addresses fear and human suffering in meaningful ways. Resolving conflict without violence gets more interesting when your "enemy" is driven by hunger or political oppression. Why can't a game present me with options to investigate the causes of a conflict before insisting that I start blasting away? What if I could engage my enemy and, through actions or choices, help him resolve his situation. If I try this and fail--if fighting becomes a last but ultimately necessary option--my emotional involvement in this difficult situation is greatly enhanced, and the choice to fight has resonance. Games like Mass Effect have attempted to present enemies in this way, but only through backstory cutscenes that I passively observe.

An essential point: I'm not suggesting we abolish FPS games, neuter FPS games, render FPS games politically correct, or anything else of the sort. If there's a market for shooter games that let players blast through hordes of enemies with a threadbare story—or no story at all—I say make those games, sell those games, enjoy those games. Give people what they want.

But I want what I want too. I want an interactive experience that offers me more choice than kill or be killed. If I decide to fight, I want that game mechanic to feel intuitive, rewarding, and fun (hello Mass Effect), but if I decide to negotiate or flee, I want those experiences to feel rewarding and fun too. Regardless of what I decide, I want my choices to impact the game world in meaningful ways.

Don't tell me it can't be done. It's too late for that. Game designers have only themselves to blame for opening these doors to gamers. When titles like Fable and Fahrenheit present the framework for truly immersive interactive gameplay, we cannot be blamed as gamers for wanting them or their successors to make good on those promises. Don't tell me I should be satisfied with how good Bioshock already is when the very nature of that game's design entices me with choice, agency, and consequence...all of which turn out to be cleverly disguised illusions.

One of the take-home messages of GDC was that the industry must work to expand its market. Gordon Walton is right. A sizable audience exists for narrative games that don't involve killing at every turn. As a teacher who loves games, I talk to members of that audience every day, both among colleagues and students. We're ready. Give us what we want.

Games without guns - part 2

Doom_1 The most interesting session I attended at GDC was a game design roundtable on resolving conflict without combat. A room meant to accommodate twenty-five people was packed with at least three times that many lining the walls and seated on every inch of floor space. And these weren't merely pacifist onlooker academics like me. Dozens of western development companies (including the three biggest) were represented in that room.

Gordon Walton (co-studio director at Bioware with 30+ years of experience making games) hosted the session and began by lamenting that gameplay in most narrative action games contains very little nuance. Most titles rely on combat as their primary conflict resolution mechanism. In his view, providing alternative ways of resolving conflict may attract more diverse audiences to games.

Walton is a designer, but he's also a businessman. He wants to sell more games by increasing his audience, and why shouldn't he? The fact is most games exclude far more than they include. For many people, killing everything that moves on a screen is not wish fulfillment. This may have to do with moral objections or a repulsion to violence, or an inability to cope with a complex set of controls.

I share some of those concerns, but for many of us long-time gamers the resistance may be even more simple. Shooters have simply become old hat. We've played them since Doom, and now we're ready for something else. Yes, I know I can play Peggle or Warcraft or Mario or Burnout. It's not a question of variety among video games. It's a question of how to make non-RPG narrative games less, well, simpleminded.

At first glance, it would seem such games are growing more mature. Adult content, darker themes, and conflicted characters have found their way into games like Call of Duty 4, Prey, and Bioshock. As these and other games have shown, story, character, and genre can be manipulated or redefined in all sorts of interesting long as they can be squeezed into a familiar shooter mechanic. Within the core gameplay itself, the limits of variety are starkly defined: more weapons, better weapons, improved ways of aiming, deploying or shooting weapons, and survival. As thematically ambitious as Bioshock is—and I truly admire it for all the ways it brilliantly succeeds—it's core gameplay differs very little from Doom's.

Relative to the gaming audience worldwide, the hardcore shooter audience is small (some would say stagnant), yet a startlingly high percentage of the resources in game development, design, and hardware engineering is devoted to creating games for this small group. If you're a talented western designer working your way up the ranks, when you finally each the top (whatever that means or looks like) there's a very good chance you'll be working on a big AAA shooter. The old rock star designers made strategy games, sims, and RPGs. The new rock stars make shooters.

Game designers have become experts at virtual genocide – destroying mass numbers of people, creatures and objects with no mercy. What I felt and heard from the designers in that room was a powerful sense of restlessness - a tangible yearning to challenge themselves, stretch the medium, and break through self-imposed limitations that, in the view of some, retard the development of the medium. No one wants to abolish the FPS, and plenty of us are genuinely excited to see what a game like Far Cry 2 adds to the FPS mix. We're simply hungry for a core gameplay experience built on a more interesting set of mechanics, or at least one that provides viable and entertaining options for dealing with conflict besides killing.

So how would such a game look and play, and what design elements would it include? Stealth? Negotiation? Flight? I'll report on some suggestions offered at the roundtable and toss in a few of my own tomorrow.

Can games tell stories without guns?

Bioshockleftrightchoice Pac-Man, Mario, and Master Chief - a compact history of video games neatly represented by three iconic characters. A remarkable evolution of technology and design can be seen in this 25 year arc, with each character providing a snapshot of an industry from three critical periods in its development.

For many people this evolution is accompanied by a disturbing trend towards increasingly realistic depictions of violence. The disturbing part, however, isn't the violence. Games have been violent from the beginning--the first video game was called Spacewar, after all--and they will continue to be violent as long as chomping or bopping or shooting things remains fun. The problem isn't the violence; it's the lack of imagination.

Big budget mainstream video games have restricted their focus to an increasingly threadbare shooting mechanic that is fast losing its power to engage us. So-called innovation in most mainstream games has been reduced to figuring out how to distinguish your way-cool shooter from the other guy's way-cool shooter. Halo 3: futuristic warfare shooter; Bioshock: dystopian philosophical shooter; Mass Effect: sci-fi RPG shooter; Turok: dinosaur shooter; The Orange Box: shooter, shooter sequels, team-based shooter, portal shooter.

And the big budget titles on the way: Army of 2; GTA4, MGS4...more of the same. Sure, we'll see new bells and whistles from these games, but nothing truly innovative in terms of the core gameplay experience. I heard Clint Hocking talk today at GDC about immersive gaming in the most intellectually rigorous terms imaginable. He devotes all his time these days to Far Cry 2. Yup, it's a shooter.

Game god Steve Meretzky offered some interesting advice on game design yesterday. If you're building a shooter game and decide you want a story, then go ahead and add it. At worst, it will be a distraction the player can skip, and it may help tie the gameplay experience together.

But, Meretzky continued, if you're building a game whose objective is to tell a compelling story, why would you choose shooting people as your primary gameplay mechanic? Bioshock wants to convey a thematically rich and ambitious narrative set in an immersive, visually powerful world. Why did it need to be a shooter? Do game designers lack any other means of conveying story besides the snippets they can squeeze in between the gun battles?

I'm out of gas after another full day of GDC, but I'll return tomorrow to explore this question more thoroughly. As always, your thoughts are welcome.

GDC - The voyeur's view

Gdc_escalator I do not belong at GDC. That very fact helps account for why I'm having so much fun at GDC.

GDC is for game developers. To be sure, the media is here in force--from the Biloxi Sun Herald to Singapore TV--and game publishers have filled the exhibit hall with marketing barkers, kiosks, and demo stations. But despite its explosive growth, GDC remains a must-attend event for the guys (yeah, it's pretty much all guys) who design, code, build, test, and otherwise create the games we love to play. And these guys are cool. Laser-focused, hardcore but starry-eyed, geek-supremo cool.

Waiting in line to board the plane in Chicago, it became apparent that roughly a third of the passengers were headed to GDC. I mistook a tall man in a decorated flight jacket for a military officer until I got close enough to notice that the "stripes" stitched on his sleeves were all video game titles. The gate attendant greeted him with a hearty "Welcome aboard, Captain" as he boarded the plane. A group of men gathered behind me chuckled, all wearing identical yellow polo shirts emblazoned with the name of a game engine.

On the flight I sat across the aisle from two programmers whom had never met. I eavesdropped with varying degrees of interest as they discussed everything from emergent AI to rim lighting effects, with a little death metal mutual appreciation mixed in. They both eagerly looked forward to GDC, despite having attended many times before.

My conference badge lists my name, teaching position, and college...which makes me a rather odd duck. Very few academics attend GDC, aside from those who teach formal game design or programming. I've begun to think I may be the only attendee representing a small liberal arts college. In the familiar surreptitious "conference glance"--the one that begins at the navel where your badge is and works its way up to the face--I attract very little interest. I'm not affiliated with the industry; I'm not hiring; and I'm not N'Gai Croal.

Later, in a ploy born of pure vanity, I attached my newly minted "Brainy Gamer" business card to my badge, hoping to override my lowly professorial status with my burgeoning blogger status. I received a few cursory head nods--more likely expressions of conference fatigue than recognition--thus my stealth mode conference activity continues.

And that's perfectly fine with me. I'm a keenly curious observer here--which is pretty much what I am all the time regarding video games--but being here means I can ask questions, offer suggestions, and meet a few heroes. Today I spoke with Steve Meretzky. I will leave here happy.

Listening to designers talk about their work, their aspirations for games, and (I'll say it because it's true) their dreams is immensely interesting to me, and I revel in my proximity to all this creative energy. Sure, there's cynicism and disillusionment to be found here too, and maybe GDC has grown too big for its core mission, but I've been attending conferences for nearly 20 years, and I can say with certainty that this industry, this entertainment medium, this emerging field of study--whatever we want to call it--generates a tremendous amount of energy and genuine affection from the people who work in it.

Even after 30 years, game design proceeds in a fertile, formative stage of development, and everybody here gets that. We're still trying to decide what it can do and where it can go. We're all so hopeful, and that's quite a thing to be.

I'll be back with more tomorrow on game preservation; conflict resolution without combat; and interactive storytelling best practices. Oh, and remind me to tell you about how I became a Wii Fit yoga master. ;-)

Off to GDC

Sfbridge I'm headed to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today. I'll update the blog beginning tomorrow with impressions from the many sessions and presentations I will attend. I have a busy schedule, so I expect there will be lots to report!

Plenty of other sites are delivering news from GDC, so I'll avoid that in favor of focusing on the "big ideas" that emerge. I also look forward to meeting some of my fellow game bloggers and journalists, if only to disprove the widely held theory the "Brainy Gamer" is in reality a room full of typing monkeys.

More soon!

Games to play with your kids that won't drive you crazy

You're a parent with preteen kids, and you'd like to spend some time together playing video games. Good idea. (I hope you're also reading and playing with them outside).

But you have a problem. You don't want a game with violent or mature content because your kids are too young. You don't want a numbers and alphabet game because your kids are too old. They're bored with Wii Sports and Wii Play, and you simply refuse to put yourself through another iteration of Mario Party. What to do?

Here's a short list of recent games that may be helpful. They all manage to strike the right balance of challenge and accessibility, making them fun for both you and your kids. Each is suitable for all ages (one contains  "cartoon violence"), and they comprise a varied set of experiences from puzzle solving to platforming to...well, brawling.

Audiosurf AudioSurf (PC) - "Ride your music." Audiosurf is a music-adapting puzzle racer where you use your own music to create your own experience. The shape, the speed, and the mood of each ride is determined by the song you choose. You can race to your favorite tunes, and your kids can race to theirs. Better yet, challenge them to find a piece of music that will make dear old Dad crash. This is a terrific game that can be customized to suit everyone's musical tastes.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Nintendo DS) - An adventure game full of exploration,Layton puzzles, and mini-games. St. Mystere is brimming with hidden puzzles. Tap your surroundings to find them, inspect items and talk to people. The brain teasers are fun to solve and many provide quite a challenge. Though the game is designed as a single-player experience, it's more fun to work together to solve the puzzles. A beautiful and well-crafted game.

Zackwik_2 Zack and Wiki (Wii) - Another single-player game that's more fun with helpers, Zack and Wiki is a puzzle adventure game that proves Nintendo isn't the only developer that understands how to integrate the Wii-mote into clever gesture-based gameplay. This game is HARD (in a fun way, trust me), and you'll be grateful for the additional brainpower of your family. I recommend passing the Wiimote to a new person for each level.

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Wii, PS3, Xbox360, DS) - Play through all six Star Wars movies in oneLego_complete_500 game - with Lego characters! This game features a terrific co-op mode, enabling two players to take on all the challenges together. Don't be put off by the Lego branding. This is a well-made game with high production values and a wry sense of humor about the Star Wars universe.

Super_smash_bros_brawl Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) - I'm recommending a game I haven't yet played (it arrives in North America on March 9), but from all accounts this is likely to be the must-have multiplayer game of 2008. Featuring a full roster of Nintendo characters, Brawl is a fighting game with no kills, only knockouts and ring-outs. Up to four players can play at once (the more the better), and even button mashers can win. The game highlights music and levels from Nintendo games dating all the way back to the original NES. The family that Brawls together stays together, right?

Suda, Seurat, and the journey to the finished piece


A few years ago I was privileged to see a special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago called "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte." This collection brought together 45 of Seurat's paintings and drawings, all related to his famous masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Created over a 2-year period--and ranging from crayon sketches to oil paintings on small wood panels to nearly full-size paintings--the exhibition shows how Seurat worked out the details and techniques that ultimately found their way into the finished work. Each little sketch functions like an early draft, and proceeding through the exhibition it's possible to see Seurat working through each one, retaining some ideas and discarding others for the final painting.

Is there a video game connection here? But of course. You may purchase this painting
to decorate your home in Animal Crossing: Wild World. How about that?! Worth the trip, wasn't it?Womanseurat

Actually, a more significant connection exists related to process, and it came to mind as I was playing Suda Goichi's Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked. This game, a licensed property based on an anime TV show, was clearly a job-for-hire gig taken on by Grasshopper, but it bears the unmistakable signature of Suda 51. Most importantly, one can easily see the early design motifs, signature visual flourishes, and clever combat mechanics, all of which found their way into Suda's masterpiece No More Heroes. Yes, I've decided to stick with that masterpiece moniker.

Cultural relevance quibblers, please don't worry. I'm not attempting to compare a silly little video game to one of the world's great works of art. We know our place here in the ghetto. Video games are for kids and "man-teens sitting before their kiddy consoles like huge manatees." I'm interested in the creative process here, so indulge me for a few more paragraphs, and I'll be out of your hair.

Like Seurat's preliminary sketches, Suda's ideas in Samurai Champloo are good, but not great; interesting, but not quite compelling. They serve their functions, but they don't quite coalesce, nor do they exhibit the refinement and finely tuned execution of their later versions. Most significantly, they show evidence of an artist experimenting with innovative ideas, within genre parameters, but pushing hard at all the borders. They are, in a sense, only a means to an end.

Certainly, Killer 7 can also be seen as a precursor to NMH, and its hyper-violent postmodern aesthetic can found all over Santa Destroy, but Killer 7 is a significantly darker, more demented experience than NMH. Sylvia may invite you to "the garden of madness" in NMH, but Killer 7 actually takes you there. Furthermore, Killer 7's on-rails action and shooting gallery mechanic are a long way from NMH's active battle system of timed button presses and gesture-based kills. This extraordinarily well-executed system had its origins in Samurai Champloo, not Killer 7 [see note below]

WomanwithmonkeyMoreover, playing NMH simply feels more like Samurai Champloo than Killer 7. This is all very subjective, of course, but it seems clear from interviews that Suda intended NMH to be more fun than his previous effort - exuberant and precocious (ala Samurai Champloo), not pitch-black and delirious (ala Killer 7).

Glenn Turner over at The New Gamer wrote a dead-on analysis of Samurai Champloo in which he suggests that Suda overcame the limitations of adapting pre-existing material in his own inimitable way:

It has a strong director, the increasingly notorious Suda 51 (mostly known for last year's stylish & divisive Killer7), who wildly compensates for an unremarkable hack-'n-slash adaptation involving two samurais, plucked from the titular anime... How does he do this? By painting over the game with abrasive aural and visual elements; essentially scribbling all over the standards that come with an adaptation.

Scribbling is an apt metaphor as it suggests a rather disjointed effort to squeeze unique stylistic touches into the margins of a pre-existing structure. These samurai must fight, and Suda clearly devotes most of his effort to creating a unique combat system. But he must also adhere to the familiar arc of the anime narrative, which seems to tie him down a bit. It's a fairly obvious extrapolation to see how these elements reappear in NMH, unfettered and more effective, as a modern assassin free of the anime samurai baggage, operating in a game-tailored environment that itself functions as a riff on video game design cliches. One can almost feel Suda stretching his muscles.Treesseurat

Nearly all the roots of NMH's brilliant sword (er, lightsaber, er, Katana) fighting system can be found in Samurai Champloo--timed combos, hypermode invincibility, slice and dice kills-- but unlike in NMH the pieces don't quite add up to a satisfying whole. Combat quickly becomes repetitive, and it lacks the intuitive, tactile feel of its successor. As a first draft, it's remarkably good, but the final draft version in NMH is tighter, more polished and more fun...thanks to lessons learned in Samurai Champloo.

Likewise, Suda's irrepressibly ludicrous sense of humor runs rampant throughout Samurai Champloo, but for the most part it seems like a dress rehearsal for the big show to come. Suda enjoys unveiling kooky, unlikely bosses who turn out to be prodigious killing machines. His best villain in Samurai Champloo is a Hungarian aristocrat wearing a Beijing Opera wig and pantaloons. Suitably ridiculous, to be sure, but this one-dimensional character wouldn't crack the top ten in NMH's gallery of boss assassins.

Study5 Twisted, but oddly sympathetic characters like Dr. Peace, Shinobu, and Holly Summers are nowhere to be found in Samurai Champloo, but you can see their outlines if you look for them. Somewhere between Samurai Champloo and NMH, Suda discovered empathy. Interestingly, the character of Garcian Smith in Killer 7 seems to me an effort to test the capacity of a video game to elicit empathy in ways unique to the medium...but that's another essay.

My real interest here is studying the journey - tracing the footsteps to better understand an artist's movement from one idea or technique to the next. In that Chicago gallery I was able to walk my way through Seurat's mind, tracing the evolution that produced something very powerful and good. I consider this a worthwhile and valuable effort, and it's one we can apply with equally useful results to a video game like No More Heroes. Suda did not produce that work all in one piece. It emerged from a process, and if we're willing to make the effort, we can come to know and understand much about that process, enhancing our appreciation of an artist's work.

Rather than margin scribbles, No More Heroes provides a blank canvas for Suda's broad and bold strokes, and, to extend the metaphor, Samurai Champloo served as a valuable early rendering. Like Seurat, Suda's work is clearly an extension of himself, and it's quite possible--even useful--to track the ongoing evolution of this work. Unfortunately, Seurat died at the age of 31 and never sold a single painting in his lifetime. Happily, Suda is going strong at 40 with several projects in the pipeline for multiple systems. And he can occasionally be found wearing a lucha libre mask.

Note: Thanks to Steve Gaynor for originally suggesting to me that Grasshopper saw Samurai Champloo as an opportunity to prototype their swordfighting mechanics. Given that NMH was originally slated as a PS2 game, this makes perfect sense to me.

Also, I'm eager to further trace Suda's work back to games like Michigan, The Silver Case, and Flower Sun and Rain, but these were never released in the U.S.  Suda announced at last year's GDC that several remakes were underway for the DS, but no dates have been confirmed.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 9

Oldradio22 The Brainy Gamer goes on a gaming bender: No More Heroes, Burnout Paradise, Endless Ocean, and Rez HD; plus meditative gaming; another game recommendation kiss of death; and an interview with Mitch Krpata from Insult Swordfighting - 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)

Links mentioned in the show:

Mitch Krpata's Insult Swordfighting blog
Thoughts on No More Heroes here and here
New details on Spore
Critical-Gaming blog

Hail Britannia

Britannia3 A peculiar phenomenon of American culture is the way we often ignore our own history, even as it unfolds in front of us. It is often left to foreign scholars and historians to celebrate the significance of our great artists. Our understanding and appreciation of filmmakers like Buster Keaton and John Ford was greatly enhanced by French critics in the 1950s and 60s who in many ways exhumed the reputations of these great masters.

Likewise, we owe a great debt to Thames Television for its seminal 1980 documentary "Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film," the only comprehensive documentary of its kind, and a just-in-time recording of first-hand accounts from Lilian Gish, Hal Roach, Yakima Canutt, and dozens of other now departed figures from the silent era.

As we continue to wrangle over "games as art" and bicker over ratings systems and console war supremacy, others are moving forward, affording video games cultural status worthy of recognition on par with film, television and other popular media. In particular, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) decided several years ago that video games should be seen as its "third arm," equal in stature to film and television:

The video game has rapidly become one of the most exciting and engaging moving image art forms and BAFTA has long-recognised the medium's potential to inspire, educate and entertain. Since 2003, the British Academy Video Games Awards have provided an international stage to celebrate the creative endeavour of the industry’s many talented individuals.

Certainly, video games are awarded in America by reputable organizations like D.I.C.E., but such industry events pale in comparison to the cultural stature of BAFTA. The reality is that when most Americans hear "video game awards," they think Spike TV. Google those three words and see for yourself. We are worlds away from a broad cultural recognition of video games in this country if we must rely on Spike TV as the arbiter of taste and achievement.

Likewise in our mainstream major media, stalwart publications like the New York Times decree video games not quite ready for primetime, while its UK equivalent The Guardian editorializes on the senseless omission of the medium among the other recognized arts:

Here at the Guardian there are apparently only seven forms of arts and entertainment. Art itself, television, books, theatre, film, music and even the little old radio get a mention. There they are, at the top of your screen, the limit of our cultural world catalogued succinctly.

To adults who play sophisticated games regularly (such as those over at the Guardian's Gamesblog) it is an old contention that video games can be art, and tell a story in a way nothing else can. To everyone else, it seems madness to think those digitised and extra gory versions of Rambo IV could ever do anything subtle. OK, so there is a mountain of idiotic guff made into video games and most are the top sellers. But are the book charts any different?

The editorial goes on to suggest that we needn't wait for someday. We are producing and have produced valuable and subtle works of art in the form of video games:

...For games that don't have a weapon in sight we look to the early work of Lucasarts. The name is right: it remains the most genuinely artistic accomplishment in the Lucas empire. Tim Schafer produced for them time-travelling B-movie parody and surreal history lesson Day of the Tentacle, biker comedy Full Throttle and, greatest of all, Grim Fandango. Fandango was stunningly beautiful, taking the calaca style figures of the Mexican Day of the Dead and telling a four-year tale of the afterlife in which you get to play the grim reaper. More importantly, it was wonderfully, tightly and wittily written.

For a different, albeit more pessimistic (realistic?) take on this issue, I recommend Steve Gaynor's essay "Wager" on his blog Fullbright. I don't fully agree with him on this one, but it's a well-reasoned piece by one of the most incisive games writers around, and well worth a look.

You can read the entire Guardian editorial here. Hail Britannia!

Podcast 9 incoming

Media_animations_questionmark_2 I'm preparing Brainy Gamer podcast episode 9 and would love to include your games-related questions, comments, or feedback. I'll also happily accept blatant self-promotion of your blog, site, or podcast, provided I agree it would be interesting or useful to my listeners (gotta protect my credibility, you see).

Send an email or mp3 audio file to me at [email protected], and I'll do my best to work it into the show. Look for the podcast here and on iTunes this Wednesday.

Thanks very much for listening!