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March 2009

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 21


This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features an interview with Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, co-founders of thatgamecompany and creators of Flower. We discuss a variety of topics, including TGC's design philosophy, the road from Cloud to Flower, starting a game company from scratch, the liberating nature of limitations...and, of course Flower.

Also, a fond farewell to N'Gai Croal, and gearing up for GDC...all in this episode of the Brainy Gamer Podcast!

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Are we there yet?


I've purposely avoided the "games as art" debate lately. I hit the topic pretty hard in the early days of the blog because at the time it seemed like a fresh conversation worth having. It's still an interesting subject, but I find myself growing weary of the familiar pleas for cultural validation, many of which strike me as essentially defensive and a little desperate.

Leigh Alexander recently suggested we tend to overvalue artsy games like Flower in an effort to prove games have finally reached the promised land of cultural legitimacy. I think she goes too far when she describes our responses to Flower as somehow forced or unauthentic. I purposely reigned in my enthusiasm for Flower when I wrote about it, fearing my affection for the game would be seen as lavish fanboyism. But I think her general point is well taken. We often seem to fall all over ourselves in praise of games that emerge from the cookie-cutter mold of mediocrity, and I'm probably as guilty as anyone on that count. I tend to avoid writing about games that make no impression on me (that's most games, actually) preferring to focus on the ones that provoke me in some way, which probably skews my attention toward games I like.

Lots of us are invested in arguing the case for games - as art, as a subject worthy of academic study, as learning and literacy tools, as cultural artifacts worth preserving, etc. - but I've come to believe games make their case most persuasively when we enable people - doubters and believers alike - to play and discover them first-hand. If we can then persuade them to take just one more step: to interpret their experience in a personal way, I believe we've gone as far as we're likely to go in making that case.

Two games prove this point to me most clearly: Flower and Far Cry 2. In the case of Flower, I introduced the game to a group of people, gamers and non-gamers alike, at a recent house party. I loaded up the game with almost no introduction and simply handed the controller to a person standing next to me. Over the next hour we all played the game, or watched it being played, passing around the controller, and talking as we went along. Most had never seen such a game before, and within minutes people were describing how it felt, comparing it to other experiences (both game and non-game), and ascribing meaning or emotion to various actions.

Leaving aside the question of whether Flower is a "deep" game, a "zen" game, or even a narrative game, these players clearly formed their own impressions of what Flower was "trying to say" and what Flower was enabling them to do with no encouragement from me. They responded to it much like one responds to a painting or a poem. They dug into it for beauty, for emotion, and for meaning because they felt sufficiently provoked to do so. Under these circumstances, asking "But is it art?" seemed ridiculous to me.

My experience with Far Cry 2 was more interesting and personally valuable. I wrote about the game because it had exasperated me, and I wondered aloud if I had somehow missed the point or focused on the wrong things. The answers that came back fascinated me because many of them strove to account for deeply personal experiences derived by persevering through situations, environments, and gameplay that express an overarching nihilist philosophy. As Mitch Krpata put it:

What Far Cry 2 does is embrace the vacuum at the core of your character's personality, instead of trying to conceal it as so many other games do. This is something that I personally found refreshing. The reason I cared is because the game didn't try to fool me into caring. I wasn't trying to fix this place. I was getting destroyed along with it. That's a brave angle to take.

Nels Anderson put it this way:

FC2 is a bit confusing because the environment is so real and tangible, but the people that inhabit it are (hopefully deliberately) not. They're shallow, replaceable and don't behave realistically. But they're not supposed to, because they're archetypes or foils instead of simulacra of real people.

These cogent responses (and others I could have noted) are both personal and richly interpretive. They differ from my own, and they challenge me to reconsider what this game means and why my experience was so different. Most importantly, these interpretations are largely based on experiences received and deliberated on via gameplay. In other words, while both commenters were affected by the formal narrative aspects of Far Cry 2, most of their interpretive reflections on the game were derived from being in the game and driving their own experiences.

Mitch and Nels aren't trying to explain the meaning of Far Cry 2's story. They're trying to convey a significantly more personally derived meaning drawn from a collection of experiences that occurred inside Far Cry 2's game world. This kind of individualized subjective reflection is characteristic of how we respond to art. And these responses suggest a particular reception to art that is unique to video games.

If we want to make the case for games as art, this is how it must happen, in my view. We can endlessly theorize and contextualize games - and I think we should - but precious few souls will be converted by reading passionate apologia for games detached from the uniquely personal experience of playing them. That is how we know things, and that is why all art is interactive.


Airport One of the best things about being a teacher - aside from the enormous pay and sexy cultural cachet -  is never having to say goodbye to Spring Break. Mine arrives next week and not a moment too soon. We're all headed to Santa Fe New Mexico for some much needed rest and rejuvenation, and I can't wait.

By the way, did you know Santa Fe's art market is the second largest in the United States, after New York City? Pretty amazing for a city of 75,000.

So I'm looking forward to a week of handheld gaming, and I thought it might be fun to temporarily transform this place into The Brainy Portable Gamer and focus on titles I otherwise tend to ignore. I'm bringing my iPod Touch, PSP, and DS with me (gotta maximize my options, ya know), and I plan to post a little something each day about the game(s) I'm playing. Don't expect deep analysis (I am on vacation, after all), but more of a daily gaming diary that simply highlights what I'm up to.

If you'd like to play along with me, feel free to jump in and comment. Below is a list of recent games I'm bringing with me. It's heavy on iPhone games because I've got some catching up to do on that system. A total of 5177 iPhone games have been released since the device appeared, so my attempt to catch up has no chance of success; but I'll give it a shot anyway. Surely, somewhere in that massive pile are some good games. 

iDracula (iPhone)
Retro Game Challenge (DS)
Crisis Core (PSP) - not exactly a quick-play game, but one I've been longing to try
Edge (iPhone)
Field Runners (iPhone)
Rolando (iPhone)
MLB '09 (PSP)
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (DS)

If I'm missing a game you think I should try (especially an iPhone title that emerges from the crowd), feel free to let me know. We leave on Sunday. And, yes, we know Santa Fe is hardly a typical Spring Break destination. That's sort of the whole point. ;-)

Cold jungle


I bailed out of Far Cry 2 over the weekend, and I've spent the last couple of days trying to figure out why. I guess the short answer is that I stopped having fun...but that's a little too easy. I don't think a game must necessarily be "fun" to hold my interest. I wouldn't describe my experience with Fallout 3 as "fun," but the game drew me in and kept me there for all sorts of reasons I've already written about.

I so wanted to like Far Cry 2, and I was prepared to do whatever the game asked of me. I'm not a great lover of shooters, but I'll walk a mile for an ambitious game that tries to innovate. And let's face it, in the decade since Half-Life, the "big idea" designers have tended to gather around the shooter genre as a proving ground for their theories.

So I approached Far Cry 2 looking for certain things, and maybe that's part of my problem. Maybe I should have cleared my mind of preconceptions and jumped into this game with a take-whatever-comes mentality. But I couldn't. I knew about the designers' intentions because I heard them tell me. I was invested in the design goals that have now become buzz-phrases (emergent narrative, dynamic story architecture, etc.), and I believe these guys (Clint Hocking and Patrick Redding) are serious and sincere about moving narrative games forward. So I began Far Cry 2 geared up for a gaming experience framed by these ambitious goals, and maybe that's not fair.

I'm also aware that people whose opinions I respect tell me Far Cry 2 is a terrific game. Chris Remo calls it a "slow burn" and encourages players to stick with it long enough to allow the full measure of the game to emerge. Ben Abraham calls the game a masterpiece. Justin Keverne says Far Cry 2 evoked emotions he rarely associates with games. With these and other thoughtful critiques in mind, I walk away from Far Cry 2 assuming my negative response to the game is personal (how could it be otherwise, right?) rather than prescriptive or diagnostic.

All of which brings me back to my original question, why didn't I like this game? Here's the best I can offer: Far Cry 2 wants me to behave as I wish in a complex, ethically gray-area world of mercenaries, and it wants to endow my actions and choices with moral gravity and communicate these choices through gameplay. It establishes a rich environment within which all this action occurs and populates it with characters I must care about because nearly all of them either need my help or want to kill me. But the problem is, I don't. I just don't care. Even though I want to.

I don't care because I don't care about me, and by "me" I mean my avatar. No matter which mercenary I choose, the game offers me almost nothing to latch onto in terms of empathy or emotional attachment. I don't mind being a bad guy - in fact, I rather relish it in games - but Far Cry 2 puts me into situations that presume I'm making choices based on things the game never bothers to establish.

I suppose it could be argued that it's my job to supply all this information, but Far Cry 2 seems to land somewhere between the blank slate and fully-formed character models of avatar-design. I know too much to feel like I've created this character, but not enough to understand who he really is or why it should matter.

Maybe none of this is important. I can play the game like a heartless mercenary, collect diamonds, and kill whomever is in my way. But the narrative construction of the Far Cry 2 suggests that I'm supposed to care; I'm supposed to negotiate my way through a thicket of moral ambiguities, and this is ultimately supposed to produce meaning that I played a role in constructing.

This balance of player input and thematic content has been described by the designers as intentional and pivotal to the experience Far Cry 2 offers. As Redding puts it:

...I feel as though it's important to differentiate between the premise of the game, and the story which is ultimately the thing that unfolds as a result of player input. And to me the story is an output. And what we can say is we have a target for that output. We want the story to be about certain themes, and so what we try to do is pick a premise that supports that, and then also pick mechanics that support that.[1]

Despite the sandbox freedom and open-ended gameplay (or, perhaps, because of them) Far Cry 2 is supposed to be about something that matters. Something with genuine, if malleable, thematic value. For me, it simply didn't happen. I didn't care about myself and, frankly, I didn't really care about anyone or anything else in the game either.

Did it happen for you? If so, have I missed something important or focused on the wrong things? I believe it's possible for us to learn how to appreciate things by better understanding them (if I didn't, I think I'd have to find another profession), and I detest the kind of arrogant dismissal that says "I hate this book/film/game. It sux because I didn't like it."

Far Cry 2 seems far too ambitious and extraordinary in ways I didn't elucidate in this post for me to dismiss it. I made a genuine effort to embrace it, but it wouldn't embrace me back. I've walked away from it, but I'm always up for another try.

Gee whiz

Gee2 Jim Gee loves video games because they're fun. That's the first thing you should know about one of the nation's leading voices for school reform and the foremost scholar on games and the lessons they have to teach us about learning and literacy. Of course, games are more than just fun (and "fun" is a big little word), but fun is where we start.

Gee visited Wabash College, where I teach, for three days last week and met with all comers: students, faculty, administrators, writing tutors...and, of course, gamers who simply wanted to shoot the breeze about games.

He's a 60-year-old whirlwind of erudite passion; an evangelist, of sorts, who believes that if we don't change the way we teach our kids soon, the world is headed to a very dark place. Games aren't the answer (and he spends a fair amount of time dispelling misconceptions of his work), but they do help point the way toward a system of engaged learning that clearly works, and he has loads of persuasive data to prove it.

Gee is a voracious gamer. His eyes light up when he talks about them, and he peppers his lectures and casual conversation with references to games that taught him to sit up and pay attention to this extraordinarily powerful and persuasive form of communication - games like Deus Ex and System Shock. And he points to games like Portal, Civ IV, and World of Goo to suggest that many of today's games are pedagogically more progressive and effective than the teaching found in most public schools.

Gee enjoys provoking listeners to examine their assumptions. He began his public lecture by asserting that Plato distrusted writing and would, perhaps, have preferred video games. "(Plato) had two major criticisms of writing in general. First, he believed that people learn through dialogue and through interaction, which is something writing is inherently unable to provide. Second, writing can get away from you, it can be interpreted in ways you didn't mean. You can't protect it. I feel that way about my writing at times." He went on to explore the interactive nature of games and noted, "Video games should be like a good conversation; they should talk back and interact with you, and that's how you learn from them."

On the other hand, Gee noted, players can mod many games, altering the "conversation" and even replacing the creator's content. Plato might not have liked that so much. :-)

The very best games, Gee observed, are extraordinarly effective teachers. He recalled reading the manual for Deus Ex and finding himself utterly flummoxed. The text read like gibberish, and nothing made sense to him. But when he played the game, he discovered the game itself taught him how to play, and it did so elegantly and efficiently. The game taught him what he needed to know at precisely the times he needed to know it, and his learning was immediately put to the test. The game itself assessed that learning and incentivized improvement. Later, when he picked up the manual, everything made sense to him. A surprisingly complex system was contextualized, and the manual elaborated and reinforced his in-game experience.

Gee claims we reverse this system to the detriment of our students. We say "read this textbook," and then we test students or try to illustrate its contents with exercises or experiments. Students have little motivation to read when they see no personal or practical motivation for doing so. Smart kids and teenagers, many of whom are marginal or failing students in public schools, are able to process complex systems of information in games like
Pokémon and World of Warcraft because they see a connection between learning and meaningful progress (Gee calls this "empathy for a complex system"). What's more, this kind of learning sticks; it doesn't evaporate after the exam.

Gee believes the form of schooling that dominates American public education, which privileges people who know a lot of facts but can't solve problems with them, is on its last legs. Video games offer a way of thinking about teaching that effectively combines learning and assessment. Gee addresses the subject like this:

All a video game is, is problem solving. If you think about it, in some weird way, a video game is just an assessment. All you do is get assessed every moment as you try to solve problems, and if you don't solve it, the game says "You've failed" and "Try again," and then you solve it and you have a boss, which is a test, and you pass the test.

I mean, games essentially are a form of assessment - the thing that is the most painful, ludicrous part of schooling - but in a video game it's fun because it's handled in a very different way.

Games don't separate learning from assessment. They don't say "Learn some stuff, and then later we'll take a test." They're giving you feedback all the time about the learning curve that you're on. So, they're not the only solution to this problem by any means, but they're a part of the solution of getting kids in school to learn not just knowledge as facts, but knowledge as something you produce; and in the modern world you produce it collaboratively.

I'm terribly grateful to Jim Gee for sharing his ideas with me, my colleagues, and students here. This wasn't one of those arrive, lecture, depart sort of visits. He graciously devoted himself to us, visiting classes, sharing meals - including a wonderful dinner with my RPG seminar students - and generally lighting a fire I hope we'll kindle for a long time to come.

If you'd like to see and hear Gee discuss his ideas in more detail, I recommend this recent interview on Edutopia.