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July 2008

GLS - Battling the curse of more

Lipo_2 In his presentation at the GLS Conference: "Battling the Curse of More: Focusing Your Game on What’s Important," Patrick Lipo proposed a set of simple tools for game design aimed at helping teams prioritize features and focus on the player's experience. Lipo, a 15-year veteran designer who served as project lead on X-Men: Legends and as studio creative director at Surreal Software, suggested that such tools can “provide inspiration for the design of anything from a small side project to a magnum opus.”

Lipo characterized the process of working on large games as both a blessing and a curse. Big budgets provide the resources to add a nearly endless set of features and realize even the most ambitious vision - “so why do so many big games seem to have development troubles?” Lipo believes limitations can help guide designers and a keep a project on course, noting that “a game that tries to do too much often fails at most of them.” Despite what many young designers may think, a blank sheet of paper can be a dangerous thing. “Every game needs a box to be built within.”

Big games are often driven by a fear of player expectations. This often results in what Lipo calls “resources without meaning,” big budgets and personnel devoted to over-ambitious goals. It is possible for a design team to have an excess of ideas, and without a clear set of project priorities these ideas can  paralyze, rather than inspire, a team.

Part of the problem, according to Lipo, is that “we all have the same enemy: MORE. Everyone wants more stuff, more features, more everything. We want our games to be cool, and more stuff adds value.” Audiences are demanding breadth in all things, which is pushing designers to create design mash-ups  with shooting, driving, open world, and MMO elements that rarely all work well. “GTA has set a ridiculous precedent,” Lipo observed, noting that it is unrealistic and unwise to mimic its formula. Spiderman 2 is a telling example of what can happen when a game tries to be all things to all players.

Lipo believes the ideal approach is to focus your efforts within a clearly defined set of constraints. “This is not an argument for simplicity. Depth is best targeted at carefully chosen places,” Lipo argued. Constraints enable you to prioritize features and support a game's objectives. “They assure that each feature is worth the cost of entry, and they demand that the gamer will notice your efforts.”

“The big question designers must ask is very simple: what will impact your players the most?” Lipo suggests this may be an unpopular stance to many gamers “who want to feel you're giving them everything you've got,” but most well designed and popular games adhere closely to this credo. Lipo cited God of War as an example of a highly polished game focused on epic fighting with a simple combat system and light RPG elements. Bioshock, according to Lipo, is a simplified version of System Shock 2, a game that may have been too complicated for its own good. “I'm sure these were tough cuts to make, but Bioshock is still complex and deep...and more successful.”

Lipo outlined a set of Tools for Focus:

  • Use verbs to abstract player activities
    • Keep them “chunky” and high-level (e.g. fight, collect, build, etc.)
    • Use verbs to group features (“fight” can branch into other related sub-features)

  • Identify Pillar Verbs - these are what the player does 90% of the time
    • Pillar verbs should be used as “a razor for prioritizing features”
    • They can be used to spot where you are trying to do too much
    • They identify the activities that will impact player the most.

  • Identify Secondary Verbs - these are side activities that provide breadth and variety of gameplay (e.g. a rail-shooting sequence).
    • Half-Life 2 secondary verb: driving
    • Diablo 2 secondary verb: crafting
  • Examples of the pillar/secondary verb structure:
    • God of War
      • Pillar: Fight
      • Secondary: Upgrade, Explore
    • Super Mario Galaxy
      • Pillar: Traverse, Collect

Lipo also suggested that designers identify Pillar Values. “Beyond verbs, what abstract concepts make your game memorable? Where should your extra love go?” These function as short vision statements that define the game experience.

  • Examples of Pillar Values:
    • X-Men Legends
      • It's about a team of heroes, not an individual
      • It must contain the most destructive environments possible (this meant a trade off between dynamic and visual detail)
      • The player must be able to create his own team of X-Men
    • Halo
      • Cinematic set pieces
      • Unique vehicles
      • Genre-defining multiplayer
    • God of War
      • Unapologetically brutal main character
      • Powerful, visceral combat
      • Epic moments

“Make sure your game screams your pillar values. Make them plain and easy to understand. Ask yourself 'What are people going to remember most about this game,” Lipo observed.

Finally, Lipo suggested designers pay attention the the scale of a game. “At what level of organization does the bulk of gameplay occur?” Different games make different choices in this regard, and Lipo cited the evolution of his own game This is Vegas, which began with “a vision of GTA meets The Sims.” While the team was excited about this idea, and the technology was up to the task, “the problem was scale.”

The player had the run of the city and could enter dozens of buildings, and the player could sway entire crowds with a single outrageous act. But the player could also affect his relationship with any individual. “This required the player to think on a 'per room' basis and a 'per person' basis.” Suddenly 1 out of every 100 people wasn't just part of the crowd, which led to unpredictable behavior that hindered the player's ability to understand what was going on. “Gameplay was deeply rooted in two places. Ultimately we had to pick one.”

A good designer must be adept at creating guidelines and limitations as well as generating new ideas, noted Lipo, “because in the end it’s about deciding how to deliver the greatest game experience.”


Getting a Clu Clu

Nesclu_clu_landbox Iroquois Pliskin, who may have the coolest name in all the blogosphere, writes a blog called Versus CluClu Land. If you haven't bookmarked or added it to your feed reader yet - well, I'll just wait here a minute so you can address that oversight.....


Welcome back.

Iroquois mixes games criticism with a healthy dose of philosophy, which adds a fascinating and thoughtful dimension to his understanding of video games. He's only been at it for a month, and already he's getting well-deserved traction from Leigh Alexander, Mitch Krpata,  and Tycho at Penny Arcade.

This is enormously encouraging to me because it suggests that it's still possible for good writing about games to emerge from out of nowhere, purely on the strength and intellectual appeal of its content. With all the hundreds (thousands?) of game-related sites on the 'net, getting lost in the shuffle would seem to be inevitable without a PR machine at your side. Happily, Versus CluClu Land proves otherwise - despite being named after a bubble fish named Bubbles. ;-)

Iroquois recently commented on my post about Jim Gee's GLS presentation on games and the future of learning. Gee believes, among other things, that well-designed games possess an inherent potential for teaching kids to learn, especially when they provide emergent gameplay possibilities. You can read the post for details on what Gee means, but Iraqois believes we shouldn't ignore the dynamic relationship that arises between the player and the game designer. He drew my attention to a post on his blog that describes how this works:

We do not only learn rules during a game but also find out what these rules are for: our uptake of these rules is also the act of learning the design to which these rules are being put. The pleasure of video games, it seems to me, comes from our sense that we are collaborating in the realization of the designer's intentions by learning those rules. When she makes a game-world governed by certain rules, the designer is inviting a player to share an intention with her and participate in the realization of same end. Our appreciation of these rules is like the appreciation of nature in this way. We enjoy perceiving a world shaped by an intelligence towards a final end.

You can read the rest of Iroquois' essay Rules and Fun here. Excellent stuff.


Vintage Game Club update

Gim_fandango_cover_2 Our collaborative discussion of Grim Fandango begins one week from today. I'm thrilled by the terrific response to my invitation, and I'm excited to dive into this genuine classic adventure game with so many of you along for the ride. :-) I can't wait to get started!

I want to thank Dan Bruno and David Carlton once again for their help and inspiration getting this off the ground.

To make it easier for us to talk to each other and organize our discussion, I've created a new forum for the Vintage Game Club. Comments posted here on Brainy Gamer are great, but they're difficult to track over time, and the commenting tool is very inflexible. I hope you'll find this more useful.

The Grim Fandango thread will open one week from today. In the meantime, if you'd like to drop by and say hello, come on over. Anyone can read all the threads, but to participate you will need to register. I've tried to make this as easy as possible - you only need a username and password - but since we're running this as a club, I think it makes sense to register members (and it's easy for me to contact everyone with announcements, polls, etc.). If you'd prefer not to join, that's fine too. You can always post comments here with no sign-up.

Periodically, I will grab posts made on the forum and feature them here to highlight what we're doing. I think lots of people are interested in old games, but they may not have time to join us for a full play-through. I want to share what we're doing and demonstrate how a community of gamers can work together to discuss, analyze, and enjoy classic games.

As I mentioned before, this is all a great big experiment, but given the level of interest I want to do the best I can to make it work. See you all in the Land of the Dead!

Note: We will play the game together from the beginning on the 21st. If you want to get a headstart, feel free, but I'm hoping we can post impressions together from the start of the game.

Click here to visit the Vintage Game Club forum.


GLS - Beyond Games and the Future of Learning

Gee James Gee kicked off the 4th Games, Learning, and Society Conference with a talk entitled “Beyond Games & the Future of Learning.” Gee is Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University and the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) and Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul (2005).

Gee sees the current U.S. educational system as inadequate to the task of addressing the problems of an increasingly complex world. He stated that “21st century learning must be about understanding complex systems,” and he believes many video games do a better job at this than the antiquated sender-receiver teaching model that dominates American classrooms.

“We're at the point where we must make choices. What do we want to be about?” Gee sees two separate educational systems operating today: one a traditional approach to learning; the other what Gee calls “passion communities.” In Gee's view, the latter produce real knowledge. Video games, virtual worlds and online social networks provide environments in which theses passion communities can form and thrive.

Passion communities encourage and enable people of all ages to do extraordinary things. Gee believes the 'amateur knowledge' that arises from this immersive involvement often surpasses 'expert knowledge,' and cited fantasy baseball as an example. The boundaries between the 'fantasy' game and the 'real' game have been blurred because fantasy players' expertise in statistical analysis has had a measurable impact on how MLB teams evaluate players.

Passion communities exist, according to Gee, to “give people status and control, not always money.” He recounted the story of a young girl who began making clothes for her Sims characters. When she wanted more textures than the game provided, she taught herself to use Photoshop to create her own. Eventually, she moved to Second Life and began selling her own original designs. When asked if she planned to pursue her interest in fashion, she said no. “I want to work with computers because they give you power.”

“This is an alternative learning system that teaches more effectively than most schools,” Gee observed. “We need to learn how to organize a learning, passion system community. Game designers know how to do this.”

Gee noted that games often require complex problem solving and cited Portal as an excellent example – noting ironically that the game can be seen as a parody of traditional schooling. He cited a description of the game from Valve's website: “The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment." What, Gee wondered, if a school could do that? “Education isn't about telling people stuff, it's about giving them tools that enable them to see the world in a new and useful way.”

Gee believes games elicit empathy for a complex system. “That's what games at their best can do. The passive spectator gains insight by getting involved.” As players engage with games by creating mods, for example, they are creating tools that “theorize their play as they play.” World of Warcraft mods created by expert players “eventually eat the experience,” providing a kind of emergent play that is superior to the experience built by the designers.

Gee sees broad implications for students in this regard. “Give students smart tools and let them use them and modify them to suit their purposes.” Such self-motivated learning moves students away from merely consuming knowledge and encourages them to produce knowledge and apply it in meaningful ways. Furthermore, Gee observed, when communities form around these activities, they are linked by a common endeavor, rather than by race, class, gender, or disability.

Gee clearly situates video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy with genuine power to transform students and equip them to address complex problems. If passion communities could be formed to solve real-world problems like hunger and environmental degradation, Gee believes we would be much better equipped to face these issues head-on. The challenge, according to Gee, isn't just about teaching our kids; it's about ensuring they have a viable world to live in.


Revolution

212_00 Three people attending the same conference ate lunch together today. One was an anthropologist; one was an information technologist; and one was a theater professor. They talked about games, teaching, and learning. They shared experiences and mined each others' expertise. They exchanged contact information.

This scenario may not seem particularly noteworthy, but I assure you it is. In fact, from where I sit, that serendipitous lunch meeting was a small revolution.

I have attended professional conferences for all of my teaching life, both in theater and film studies. But I'm off that bus now, and I have no plans to get back on. These national meetings have lost their meaning and value for many of us, though few admit it publicly. The standard academic conference in most disciplines can be characterized as a gathering of highly specialized people engaged in an institutionalized and academy-approved process of staking out arcane pieces of intellectual turf and demonstrating expertise for prestige and career advancement. It's a game we play because we must. Some academics thrive in this environment; many feel strangled by it.

The Games, Learning, and Society Conference is a very different animal. Game developers, researchers, K-12 teachers, and college professors get together for substantive and collaborative discussion about how games can enhance learning and benefit society. Disciplinary boundaries are erased as we gather to analyze how play enhances learning and encourages creativity in solving complex problems. In these discussions, the elementary school teacher's expertise is no less valued than the linguist with the PhD., and cross-disciplinary thinking is not only encouraged, it's considered vital. The sacred knowledge silos are nowhere to be found, and the conversation remains relatively jargon-free.

The sheer number of innovative ideas and paradigm-challenging proposals floating around this gathering is staggering. No one assumes public education will open its doors to these new ways of learning overnight, but measurable progress is happening here and there all over the country. And when Jim Gee - who can fairly be called the father of this movement - says we have reached a critical turning point in educating our students to live in the world we have left them, he brings with him a substantial body of research, data, and corroboration from teachers who long ago moved beyond the sender-receiver model of teaching and learning.

Games aren't the magic bullet that will save our kids. But they have much to teach us about creative problem solving, collaborative learning, community building, and passionate learning. In my next few posts, I'll describe some of the innovative efforts to better understand and leverage the unique properties of games to make kids enthusiastic and motivated learners.

I realize most of you aren't educators, but I hope you will find this work interesting and valuable. If Mr. Gee is to be believed, our beloved pastime may even help save the world.


The place between fantasy and reality

Prince3 Game sequels have a habit of growing dark and gritty. GTA4 is certainly an effort in this direction, as were Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. We're told the next Splinter Cell game (Conviction) will follow a similar path. Visually, this trajectory usually translates as "more realistic," but as you may have noticed, dark and realistic don't always bring improvement with them.

Rare is the sequel that goes the other way, striking a sunnier note than its precursors. The just-announced Diablo 3 looks like it might buck the trend with its decidedly colorful art style and more fanciful character designs - which apparently has some fans hopping mad. And despite the fact that Valve can do anything it wants, I still think it took guts to make Team Fortress 2 look the way it does. Guts and creative imagination...not a bad combo.

But what happens when you've done fun and lighthearted, then followed it with dark and grim - and now it's time to make another sequel? Go back to happy-land? Go even darker? Such is the problem faced by the next Prince of Persia game, and I'm intrigued by the direction the design team seems to have chosen.

Aesthetically, the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy was a schizophrenic roller-coaster ride. The original Sands of Time (by far my favorite) was a terrific adventure with silky-smooth gameplay that wisely never took itself too seriously. Its sequel, Warrior Within, was an abrupt and disappointing departure with a brooding bad boy prince and lots of incongruous bloodshed. The final game, The Two Thrones, was an obvious attempt to strike a balance between the two, but by then the series seemed to have run out of ideas.

What has renewed my interest in the Prince of Persia - and I confess I'm responding to early promotional info from Ubisoft (always dangerous) - is the design team's decision to situate the new game in a place somewhere between fantasy and reality. Artistically and thematically, they are apparently trying to deliver a story and convey a world that both connects the player to the real world and transports her to another.

Lots of games have done this, of course, with varying degrees of success, but I find a few of the designers' comments interesting, particularly their stated influences:

We want to create a game with style, and we don’t go with realism, so we go with caricature. Artistically, the inspirations are Japanese movies like Princess Mononoke, not just for the story, but also for the characters – they’re not just black and white, but more mature. A lot of comic books, too, as I’m a big fan, and a lot of games with big, strong artistic direction like Okami, plus some parts of the new Street Fighter and Mirror’s Edge – these are all good references. It’s a mix of a lot of things.[1]

It's an odd but intriguing collection of influences. How this turns out is anyone's guess, but I'm encouraged that Ubisoft Montreal is looking for ways to leverage next-gen hardware to create true next-gen art design, rather than endlessly grasping for the photorealistic brass ring. Ironically, they're using a modified version of the Assassin's Creed engine, which was designed to render realistic environments.

When we started to work on this Prince of Persia, we wanted it to be different from other next-gen games. A lot of them tend towards realistic graphics, featuring many technical details, such as normal maps and specular… we use those things, but much more softly than in, say, Gears of War. We’ve taken a lot of time to create post-effects and textures for this. It’s a more painterly style than other games. A vast fantasy world… that’s what we want to have.[2]

It's easy to forget how fresh and innovative the original Sands of Time was when it appeared. That game was an inspired overhaul of an existing franchise that captured the essence of the original, but wrapped it in a fun and thrillingly kinetic new experience. Here's hoping the talented gang in Montreal can breathe new life into the prince again.


Podcast update

Podcast_by_mouagip_2 Just a quick note to apologize for my delay releasing the latest podcast. I've been terribly busy of late and traveling more than usual, so I won't be able to complete the next episode until later this month.

However, I do have a very special guest lined up that I hope will make Podcast 16 well worth the wait. More soon, and thanks for listening!


Vintage Game Club seeking members

American_fandango_by_smaggers Hey! Let's play a game together and discuss it as a group of friends. What do you say?

A couple of blogger pals - David Carlton of malvasia bianca and Dan Bruno of Cruise Elroy - and I are joining together to form an online club devoted to vintage games. We want to invite people to join us as we collectively make our way through a game, sharing our thoughts and observations with each other as we go.

The Vintage Game Club is for people who may have missed some of the classic titles gamers often refer to. It's also for people who might enjoy replaying an older game to see how it holds up after all these years. Anyone who loves playing and discussing games is welcome to join in.

We all have busy lives, so the club requires nothing but your interest to join. 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. Join in, drop out, come back...whatever. We're just here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

I should add this is basically an experiment. If we finish the first game and people enjoy the experience and wish to continue with another, then I'm sure we'll keep it going. But if we only do it once, that's fine too. We'll just see how it goes.

By the way, I chose the term "vintage" purposely because its primary definition - "Characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal" strikes me as just the right way to describe the games we will play together. As far as I'm concerned a vintage game can be 20 years old or 5 years old. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter.

A few details:

  • When do we start? - 2 weeks from today. That should give everyone a chance to get their hands on a copy of the first game.
  • How will it work? - We'll set aside a month for discussion. We'll each play at our own pace and post our thoughts as we go along. Post daily, weekly, every once in awhile - whatever works for you. I will try to organize the comments so they flow in a way that reflects the unfolding of the game. I hope these comments will look more like a conversation and less like a series of disconnected posts.

So we need a game to play, right? Got you covered there because we're launching the Vintage Game Club with a bang. Our first game will be Grim Fandango, one of the greatest adventure games ever made, penned by one of the most gifted game writers, Tim Schafer. There's much more to say about Schafer and Grim Fandango, but I'll save it for our online discussion. In the meantime, grab a copy of the game and get ready for what I hope will be a fun and useful conversation. We'll get started on July 21.

To tantalize you, here's a trailer for Grim Fandango. If after watching it you don't want to play this game...well, you must be dead. ;-)


Games, Learning, and Society

Gls

Later this week I will attend the Games, Learning, and Society Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. It's a 2-day event full of workshops, symposia, presentations, poster sessions - there's even multiple "chat 'n' frag" gatherings that bring developers, scholars, and enthusiasts together for hands-on play and analysis.

The mission of the GLS group is of particular interest to me:

The Games, Learning, and Society group is a collection of academic researchers, interactive media (or game) developers, and government and industry leaders who investigate how this medium operates, how it can be used to transform how we learn, and what this means for society. As such we seek to understand what cognitive work goes into playing Zelda, World of Warcraft, or Civilization, how these design features might be leveraged to improve learning via the design of learning systems, and how organizations such as schools will need to respond.

Among the sessions I'm most interested in:

  • Beyond Games and the Future of Learning - James Paul Gee
  • Online Games and Science: The Role of Gaming Technologies in the Development of Dispositions Towards Learning - Melissa Gresalfi and Anna Arici
  • Values at Play: Tools for Activist Game Design - Jonathan Belman, Mary Flanagan, and Angela Ferraiolo
  • Power From the People: How Videogames Foster Participatory Democracy - Lisa Galarneau
  • A Walk Through Portal: An Act of Videogame Analysis - Drew Davidson
  • Competitive Fandom in Action: How Fantasy Baseball Is Really Played - Rich Halverson
  • Games that Also Happen to Educate: Can You Be Eased Into Craving Learning? -Nathan McKenzie

I'll be posting from the conference on Thursday and Friday. I hope you will find it interesting. I'm very excited and grateful for the opportunity to attend, and I look forward to meeting lots of terrific people focused on games, teaching, and learning.


Kojima and the theory of everything

Snakesalute Playing MGS4 is like being on a boat at sea tossed around by a storm. It's by turns exhilarating, disorienting, awe-inspiring, and overwhelming. Occasionally you're tempted to jump off the boat. And more than once you wish the captain would just stop talking and steer the vessel to shore. Or let me steer it.

I finally finished Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots yesterday, and I've been sorting through my thoughts about it ever since. Never in my gaming life have I felt so thoroughly confounded by a game. In these situations my training kicks in, and I begin to think about design and structure and dramaturgy - handy ways to analyze how narrative stuff is built. These tools aren't perfect, especially when narrative video games veer off the lit-crit path, but they can be helpful when you're trying to grab hold of a beast the size of MGS4.

So I put on my goofy professor hat, and it hit me: Kojima wants everything. MGS4 is the game that contains everything Hideo Kojima knows about game design and storytelling - and that is precisely what's so thrillingly right and so damnably wrong with it. Faced with a myriad of choices in storytelling, gameplay, style, and theme - Kojima chose not to choose. Or, put another way, he chose everything.

Consider the many ways games tell stories:

  • Experienced in real-time first-person mode
  • Experienced in real-time third-person mode
  • Revealed via dialogue between the hero and other characters
  • Delivered by a character (often as monologue) with information unknown to hero
  • Voiceovers
  • Flashbacks
  • Briefings
  • Recaps
  • Dreamed or imagined events
  • Simultaneous parallel action
  • Multiple plotlines, subplots, and sub-subplots
  • MacGuffins - plot devices that turn out to be meaningless
  • Reliance on lore and familiar characters to inform story
  • Database (rare, but useful for complex backstories, e.g. Lord of the Rings)

Good writers tend to employ more than one method, weaving together various techniques for variety and narrative texture. Kojima uses all of them (and probably a few I've neglected to mention).

Consider the many ways to do action combat gameplay:

  • 1st-person
  • 3rd-person
  • Top-down
  • Close hand-to-hand combat
  • Intermediate-range
  • Long-range sniping
  • Shooting behind cover
  • Shooting on the run
  • Surface to air
  • Vehicular combat
  • Chase
  • Stealth
  • Trickery and deception
  • Camouflage
  • Remote surveillance
  • Codec

And weapons:

  • Pistols
  • Submachine guns
  • Assault rifles
  • Sniper rifles
  • Machine guns
  • Grenade launchers
  • Rocket launchers
  • Thrown explosives
  • Mines
  • Specialty weapons, e.g. Psycho Mantis Doll

Again, MGS4 has them all, and I'm not including the multiple customization options for nearly every weapon.

Consider the question of style or tone:

  • Tragedy
  • Melodrama
  • Romantic comedy
  • Low comedy, e.g. farting, diarrhea, etc.
  • Satire
  • Self-reflexive awareness of game as game, e.g. references to PS3 hardware, fake game reboot, etc.

The old saying "Tragedy ends in death; comedy in marriage" applies here as MGS4 has both, and then some. Tonally, the game is all over the map with Kojima intentionally colliding high and low, serious and comedic in ways that have become signature to him.

Finally, consider theme. What is Kojima trying to say? I usually resist this question because it limits interpretation to "authorial intent." But MGS4 is so self-consciously designed as a vehicle for Kojima's views of the world -  and he has freely presented it as such - that I think it's worthwhile to examine it this way. In keeping with my rough thesis, Kojima again seems to want everything, and he communicates this through a system of binaries: 

Thematically MGS4 could be described as:

  • Hopeful / Bleak
  • Forward-looking / Backward-looking
  • Celebration of the individual / Celebration of community
  • Embrace of technology / Fear of technology
  • Virtues of patriotism / Excesses of patriotism
  • Virtues of honor and duty / Excesses of honor and duty
  • Machines are evil / Machines are our friends
  • Choose life / Choose death
  • Kojima is god / Kojima is a relic

...and I'm just scratching the surface.

I completed Metal Gear Solid 4, and my head is still spinning. How many games can stimulate such intellectual engagement? How many can genuinely move us with real compassion and empathy for its characters? These were meaningful experiences to me, and I'm grateful for them.

But throughout these 20+ hours I frequently felt frustrated and overburdened. Too often I laughed for the wrong reasons or simply felt uncomfortable by the awkwardness of the game groaning under the weight of its own ambitions. Kojima is a gifted auteur, but he needs an editor or a dramaturg - someone to tell him Drebin is a cumbersome narrative crutch; someone to tell him Sunny is a cipher; someone to tell him that Christopher Randolph is a serviceable Otacon, but he should never be asked to fake crying into a microphone; someone to challenge the function of a bloated epilogue with an interminable death scene.

The game simply tries to be/say/do too many things. This kitchen-sink approach diminishes an otherwise extraordinary achievement. I can't hate the game, but I can't fully embrace it either. I admire what Kojima has done, and I can only marvel at his profound commitment and ambition. Sometimes, however, everything is too much.


Fighting words

Fight_2 I've been following the hostility and vituperation flying around various websites and message boards over CliffyB's description of MGS4 as "passive entertainment on its way out." The fanboy flame wars burn bright as the online battle is pitched between fans of CliffyB (Western, action-driven, "web 2.0 stuff") vs. fans of Kojima (Japanese, story-driven, old-school stealth and espionage).

How hot can these fights get? To what lengths will devoted fans go to defend the integrity of their entertainment idols? Could two opposing groups of fans actually come to blows over what are essentially artistic differences?

You betcha.

Consider this scenario: Two accomplished artists divide fans along distinct aesthetic lines. Artist A is the classic traditionalist. He operates within a set of highly refined conventions. Realism matters little to him. He is a poet given to broad, even exaggerated presentation, and he is considered a master of this style. He has gained international fame.

Artist B is the American upstart. His brooding, naturalistic style is seen by many as truer to real life. He is muscular, handsome, and physically imposing. Action and movement are his fortes, and he is prone to bursts of great energy and exuberance. He is seen by some Americans as the antidote to Artist A and a sign of the future direction of the art.

Fans of Artists A and B have skirmished before with debates and public assertions of the inferiority of their opponents' hero. So when it is announced that Artist A will make a high-profile appearance in the U.S., fans of Artist B seize the opportunity to confront their enemy on the street outside the venue. A riot ensues as hundreds converge on the area armed with rocks and other weapons. Soon the police and state militia are called in, and the violence escalates.

In the end 25 people are dead and scores wounded. It is the largest number of civilians killed due to military action since the American Revolution.

Broadside The year was 1849. The location was the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. And the fight was about two actors - Englishman William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest - and their opposing interpretations of Shakespeare. No kidding. On that day in 1849 - on a street in front of a theater - people were willing to fight and die over what were essentially artistic and cultural differences.

Maybe forum flame wars aren't so bad after all. ;-)

For a more complete account of the Astor Place Riot, I recommend these excellent sites, as well as this NPR interview with author Nigel Cliff about his book The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in 19th-Century America. The broadside on the right is a photo of an original posted in advance of the event. Click to enlarge.


Boom Blox bad breaks?

Spielberg_4 I don't often focus on sales figures for games, but I'm particularly mystified by the case of Boom Blox. According to several published sources - and verified by NPD data - Boom Blox sold a disappointing 60,000 units in the U.S. during its first month of release. VGChartz, whose figures have come under scrutiny lately, reports a number closer to 90,000.

Excellent puzzle games like Zack & Wiki have sold even fewer copies in their first month, so I can't say I'm shocked by Boom Blox' performance. If a meaningful correlation between game quality and game sales exists, I've never seen it. And it's always possible the game will have legs and continue to sell in the months to come. I hope so, because Boom Blox is a big hit at my house, and every person I've showed it to has enjoyed it immensely - new and veteran gamers alike.

What mystifies me about Boom Blox is the Steven Spielberg connection. Nobody knows about it. In my utterly unscientific attempt to understand why this game has flown so far under the radar, I haven't come across a single local Wii owner who knew Spielberg was involved in making a video game. Wasn't that supposed to be a big deal? Wasn't Spielberg's name supposed to draw in at least a tiny sliver of the millions of people who know nothing about Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto, but associate Steven Spielberg with fun family entertainment?

I think I had it backwards. I assumed a game like Boom Blox - which has nothing obvious going for it (bad title, bad box art, bad release date, uknown new IP) - would rely on Spielberg's name and involvement to build awareness and interest in the game, particularly among casual gamer Wii owners. Certainly when it was first announced, EA pushed Spielberg's name in every announcement and preview, suggesting he had real input in the overall design.

But as far as I can tell (again, very unscientific observation), most owners of Boom Blox bought the game on the recommendation of a friend, an online review, or in the case of two people I know, from playing it hands-on in the store. Spielberg's involvement was no factor at all, and my guess is that plenty of people are enjoying the game right now unaware of the Spielberg connection.

I'd be curious to hear people's opinions on the failure of Boom Blox to make a splash. Is it the "kiddie" graphical style? Are console puzzle games out of fashion? Another case of third-party-itis on a Nintendo platform? Too many other big games released at the same time?

But I'm equally curious to know why the Spielberg connection seemed to evaporate at release. Maybe I'm naive about these things, but a few prime time commercials featuring Mr. Hollywood himself saying "Hey, I've teamed up with Nintendo and EA to make a really cool game for the Wii that you can play with your whole family. Look what you cand do!" Cut to gameplay footage with Spielberg taking on a kid, a dad, E.T. - heck, bring on the cast of Schindler's List. Okay, maybe not, but you get the point.

Surely EA wanted Spielberg onboard because his notoriety would sell more games. What went wrong?