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September 2008

Beautiful simplicity

Sporelogo1 I attended a lecture several years ago by a gifted physicist who spoke about the world's most famous equation: E = mc2. He contended that Einstein's groundbreaking formula could be explained in a variety of ways, but for him the most apt description was to call it beautiful. To a physicist who understands the complexity and implications of the system captured by that simple elegant equation, there can be no more appropriate response, he said. Another scientist, world-renowned theoretical physicist Brian Greene, puts it this way:

E = mc2 is certainly an easy equation to write down...but you really have to keep your head on straight to recognize what the symbols mean in any given situation. It is not an equation that reveals all its subtlety in the few symbols that it takes to write down."[1]

I've been reflecting on this notion of beautiful simplicity a lot lately, provoked by a minor convergence of events: the lively response to my post about Spore; my own experience with the game as I continue to progress through it; and Leigh Alexander's most recent post which questions game reviewers' assumptions about complexity and depth. Here's a snippet from that essay:

I have noticed lately that the primary reason some major titles -- Spore, for example -- have suffered in reviews is because they lack complexity in certain areas of the design; "complexity" is often substituted for "depth."... I wonder, from what perspective are reviewers judging complexity, in the broader sense? Are we talking about controls, the sophistication of the game mechanics, the game's length, its plot, characters, what? ... It's got me wondering -- why has simplicity become a dirty word, and why does an absence of complexity seem to translate automatically, in reviews, to a lack of depth?

I remember with some fondness a time when many of the very best computer games could be described as exercises in unintuitive complexity. These games were often brutally difficult, not because the core gameplay was too hard, but because the interface or navigation tools or feedback system (or all of these) were baroque by today's standards. I have a big soft spot in my heart for Nethack, but I'm not pining for the days of its termcap interface and keyboard map.

One of the most difficult tasks for any designer or engineer is making a complex system (a car, a computer, a video game) simple to use and easy to understand. One of Einstein's greatest gifts was his ability to communicate ideas and concepts to a variety of audiences, many of whom weren't equipped to understand the hard science underpinning his ideas. It's possible to speak plainly about complicated things, but it usually requires a lot more work.

This, it seems to me, is precisely what Will Wright and his team at Maxis have accomplished with Spore, and I believe it's a notable achievement. In certain ways it's analogous to what Jonathan Ive did with the iPod: put an immaculately designed and easy to use system in the hands of people and let them have fun with it. If this was an easy task, the iPod would be just another MP3 player.

Simple, elegant, and easy to use are, in fact, very hard to do. The achievement of Spore is just this. Its extraordinary complexity has been made invisible, and its depth has been hidden inside a menagerie of colorful creatures.

Spore and the rush to judgment


Spore is a disappointment. That's the word on the interwebs and bloggoworld. Seven years in the making, the game generated unprecedented cross-media hype and sky-high expectations. Now, a full one day after most of us finally got our hands on it, Will Wright's magnum opus has been met by what feels like a collective 'meh' from the video game cogniscenti. Nice for the noobs, but too simplistic for us vets. Sort of an interesting toy, but where's the gameplay? Five so-so games "smushed together in a casual-player-friendly manner."[1] Actually, "Spore is kind of boring."[2]

The prevailing opinion seems to be that there just isn't enough game in Spore. As simulators go, it's incredibly ambitious, but most reviewers seem to think "real gamers" will find little to enjoy in Spore, at least until they reach the Space phase. The Sporepedia is interesting if you like looking at other people's stuff; and wow, people sure are making a lot of stuff.

I wonder, in the rush to judge the game and assign a review score to it, are we fairly seeing Spore for what it is, rather than what it isn't? How much do we really know about Spore at this point, given the intrinsically organic nature of the game, its content, and the many ways players will discover to mold, create, and play with its malleable universe? The standard process for evaluating games - advance copies sent to journos; hours spent playing through the game; reviews written and published in time for game release - may not be the best or most appropriate way to fairly evaluate every game. It seems to me a fair assessment of Spore should require more time.

I haven't finished Spore, if finishing it is even possible. But I have devoted many hours to it, and I consider what I've seen so far a stunning achievement. Astonishing, really. Playing Spore - experiencing it all for the first time; imagining, creating, and exploring the game as a vast universe of places, creatures, and ideas - is unlike any gaming experience I've ever had. Approaching Spore as a game with its own utterly unique agenda; and accepting, even admiring, its insistence that this experience be accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike - both are pivotal to understanding what Spore is all about.

Is it possible that by misconstruing certain stages as "Sims-lite" or "Civ-lite" we are missing the forest for the trees? Spore intelligently generates a complete, diverse ecosystem based on the design and evolution of your own unique creature, integrating an eco-appropriate sampling of creatures designed by other people around the world...all seamlessly, and beautifully on current-gen PC/Mac hardware.

And here's the thing: it all works! I haven't even mentioned the procedurally generated music or the eighteen different types of editors available to the player. As my son likes to say, 'Are you joking me?'

Part of my concern about the critical reception to Spore (I should mention the European scores are notably higher than the U.S. scores)  is the limited and restrictive definition of that word we all love to hate: gameplay. The problem, say 1UP and IGN and Gamespot, is that Spore mimics a hodgepodge of gameplay modes from other genres, but none of them especially well. If Spore were really about action, RTS, RPG, or any other familiar game genre, this criticism would be warranted. But it's not. Not at all, actually.

Spore enables the player to create her own experience, her own narrative, her own meaning. What you get with Spore isn't a formulaic set of genre-specific gameplay modes, despite the trappings of these in various phases of the game. What you get with Spore is the most phenomenal and breathtaking toolbox any game has ever delivered. Inside that toolbox are the most wonderful and fantastical tools any game has ever offered. What we will do with them, how they will evolve, and what impact they will have on our "gameplay" is still anyone's guess.

I have no idea at this moment what Spore means or if/how Spore will matter in the long run. But why do we need to know now? Why can't we wait and see what happens? The necessity of release-date summary judgments and final scores has never been clear or obvious to me. In the case of Spore, I think such treatment does the game a disservice. I think I'll hold off awhile before deciding what to think about Spore.

Tooling around Deus Ex

Mustangdash_3 Playing through Deus Ex with the Vintage Game Club is like driving a sporty '66 Mustang convertible loaded with backseat drivers. Fortunately, the passengers enjoy the scenery as much as I do, and many of them are genuine Mustang aficionados, full of useful insights and helpful information. We're having a terrific conversation, and you're welcome to join us any time you like.

Going slowly and paying attention can yield benefits, especially if the game rewards such efforts. Taking my time with Deus Ex has reminded me of something I've always known about RPGs, but haven't properly examined:  no matter how much backstory or complexity or character detail the writers embed into a game like Deus Ex, most of it is purely optional. If a player chooses a run-and-gun strategy, clicking through dialogue and skipping cutscenes, he will breeze right past those elements, missing them completely. It's quite possible to play Deus Ex in this way, vaguely getting a sense of the overall story, but missing many of the defining features of the game.

This is hardly news to anyone who has played RPGs over the years, but as I've discovered playing Deus Ex this week, personal experience can bring what we already know into sharper focus. Deus Ex is chock-full of writing that adds subtlety and nuance to its characters and story. Sure, it's ham-fisted at times, and the voice-acting can be wincingly bad (as opposed to the preferable sublimely bad), but the care and devotion to storytelling evident in this game remain impressive almost a decade after its release. Blowing through it without paying attention would be like swigging a fine Pinot Noir. You could do it, but why would you want to?

(SPOILER ALERT) One forum poster ("Bus") pointed out the consequences of such a strategy, noting how the dialogue in an early section of the game humanizes members of the terrorist group NSF - but only if the player takes the time to listen:

"Commander Frase, we're pinned down in Hell's Kitchen and I'm not sure what to do... they're slaughtering us in the streets wherever they find us -- this one mech aug, he's like a giant walking tank, I saw someone pour a clip into him and it didn't even phase him. I've lost contact with Alpha and Delta teams, Yusuri and Thompkins are dead. I don't know what to do. We've holed up in a hotel. It's so different than training. Please tell me what we should do. If we leave, they'll kill us all. If we stay, we're dead. I've had to take hostages -- I know we were supposed to minimize civilian casualties, but I didn't have a choice. What can we..."

If one doesn't see that, then the NSF lose a great deal of the player's sympathy. It's interesting to think about how the potential to form an incomplete picture of a character or group is different in a video game as opposed to a movie or book. In the latter, it's actively difficult to miss any basic details without deliberately skipping over portions of the piece. Whereas with a video game, you can easily just not find that datacube. It might be hard then over time to assume that all players received the same level of information

And the remarkable thing is, the designers know this from the beginning. I realize writing for video games is very different from writing for other media, but I still find it unsettling to imagine myself creating a detailed universe of plot, characters, dialogue, and thematic elements - only to surrender them to the player whose main interest is power-leveling through to beat the game as quickly as possible.

I'm not here to tell anybody how to play and enjoy RPGs, but I'm struck by the vulnerability of game writers and designers in this process. They give away more authority and control over their work than even Hollywood screenwriters...and that's saying something!

I think Deus Ex creators Warren Spector and Harvey Smith would be pleased by the treatment their game is receiving from the VGC. It's not all sunshine and roses, of course, and several members have taken issue with aspects of the game's design. But we're sticking with our plan of going slowly, tooling around with the top down, taking in the view. Fortunately, there is much to see.

In praise of the smart commenter

Cagetalosian2 First of all, I'm not sure if "commenter" is actually a word. I use it fairly often around here, assuming it's legit, but it seems certain dictionaries disagree with me. "Commentator" appears to be the accepted term, but its usage in this context doesn't quite work for me. So I'm sticking with "commenter," Merriam-Webster or no.

This post is in praise of the smart commenter. I started this blog as a place where "thoughtful conversation about video games" could occur in a collegial and constructive atmosphere. I can hold up my end of that bargain (with varying degrees of success), but without readers willing to engage with a topic and respond to me and other readers, it really isn't a conversation at all. I enjoy writing about games, but the real fun for me - and the real learning - comes from sharing ideas and reflecting on experiences with the fascinating gathering of gamers I find here and elsewhere in ye olde blogosphere.

Here's a little secret about blogs that most people don't know. They produce scholarship. Not all of them, certainly, and not even most of them. But some video game blogs, absent a formal academic discipline, have built a community of experts that function in ways that embody the kind of discourse we normally call scholarly. That is, they work with a body of knowledge, principles, and practices to make claims about the subject they believe to be valid and verifiable, and they share these claims with their peers publicly, inviting comment and review.

And, like the very best scholars, they love what they do and have a blast doing it.

This process happens here and elsewhere every day. I've linked to and interviewed many of these devoted writers, and collectively I believe we are targeting and tapping a community of gamers whose collective knowledge and level of expertise exceed the somewhat derisively termed "enthusiast."

Dig through the comments left here and elsewhere, and you will find far more than fanboy rants or console-war bickering. Many of these commenters are "legitimate" scholars from traditional fields who happen to love games. Others are simply serious gamers who have steeped themselves in the history of the medium and feel personally invested in its future. All of them make my computer go "ding."

That little "ding" is Google Notifier alerting me that someone has left a comment on my blog. I must tell you in all earnestness, that "ding" is one of the sweetest sounds I hear each day. :-)

So I guess this little missive is really a love letter to all the people who have taken the time to comment on any of my posts over the last 13 months. 3215 comments and counting. I'm grateful for every one. I believe we - my fellow game bloggers, you readers and commenters, and me - are doing important and useful work. Let's keep doing it.

The diminished journey

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. --Joseph Campbell

The_legend_of_zelda_twilight_prince The profound influence of the Monomyth, the Hero's Journey, on narrative video games is easily demonstrated. When my students first encounter Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, they make the leap to video games with barely a nudge from me, listing all the games they've played that conform to Campbell's familiar paradigm: the call to adventure; the road of trials; achieving the goal (resulting in self-knowledge); returning home; and bestowing the boons, the gifts, of his journey on his fellow men (and women, presumably, though Campbell notoriously ignores them in most of his work).

While Campbell's star may have fallen among modern mythology scholars, I continue to find his work compelling because it never fails to capture the imagination of students encountering it for the first time. Helping students work their way through the stages of the Monomyth and witnessing the lightning bolt discoveries and inevitable connections to familiar fairy tales, games, films, and books they know can be an exhilarating experience. They suddenly discover a broader context they never knew existed, and this encounter often compels them to consider cultural or religious differences more openly and non-judgmentally.

But if you take the time to explore the hero's journey as it relates to video games, you soon realize something is missing. Although there may be much room for improvement, narrative video games do a terrific job of depicting the call to adventure, the journey, the victory, and the return. Link, Master Chief, and Snake have each in their own ways followed the mythic path. But where are the boons?

It might be said that securing peace or avoiding nuclear annihilation or piecing the Triforce back together are boons all by themselves. They make people feel happy and safe. Princesses are saved and kingdoms restored. Ultimately, these are the rewards of a hero's victory, right? Well, actually no. Not according to Campbell at least.

Searchers2 Campbell believes the most difficult part of the journey is the re-entry back into society. The now-enlightened hero must bring his knowledge of the world and the bitter truth of existence back to the people he has saved. And they aren't always so happy to see him. In fact, much of the resonance we derive from the hero's journey emerges from this difficult and complex exchange. As we see with characters like Ethan Edwards in John Ford's epic western The Searchers, sometimes the victorious hero returns to society, only to be rejected by it. The very things that made him fit to do the job now make him unfit to live among the people for whom he sacrificed everything. They want no part of the boons he brings them.

Can game mechanics interactively convey this part of the journey? After the victory is won, what sort of engaging play experience can be designed around the hero's return to bestow the gifts of her journey? If we agree this final leg of the quest is no less essential or defining than the call to adventure or the hero's trials, are video games destined to provide a somewhat "dumbed down" version of this journey?

Batman_the_dark_knight_image_2 To be sure, Hollywood has generally settled for the "hero victory, roll credits" formula, but not always. The Dark Knight can be seen as a meditation on the hero's efforts to integrate himself into a society that both embraces and rejects him. The boons he brings are scrutinized by the film in a variety of meaningful ways, and I think the film can be seen as an exploration of what Campbell calls the "master of two worlds"; a hero who paradoxically can be seen as belonging to two worlds, and to neither.

Is it possible to imagine a video game that could explore such rugged territory? I hope so, but I don't know. We seem always to find ourselves staring at the same question: would it be fun? One might argue $500+ million domestic box office for The Dark Knight suggests audiences are prepared for this kind of  journey, but I think such an argument takes us back to apples and oranges.

The real question, to me, is whether or not it's possible to design a compelling game that can convey, or provide an environment to explore, these complex situations, many of which are negative and unrewarding. And even if it can be done, would anyone want to play it? If the answer is no, are we then left with a truncated and diminished version of the hero's journey?

Deus Ex - away we go!

Jcdenton The Vintage Game Club begins its collective play-through of Deus Ex today. All are welcome to join us as we dive into Warren Spector and Harvey Smith's futuristic blend of RPG, FPS, and action adventure game genres (with a few other influences mixed in).

We'll be taking our time with this game, so feel free to jump in and join the conversation at any point. I'll post my thoughts on the game both here and on the VGC forums, and I'm eager to read yours as well. I hope you can join us.

Click here for more information about the club and our plans for Deus Ex.