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September 2009

The visit


Here's the scenario. You're invited to a developer's studio for an early look at a bunch of upcoming games. Throughout this 36-hour whirlwind you're treated exceptionally well. You're politely escorted from place to place; you meet smart, enthusiastic people in a workplace abuzz with energy, and you privately wonder if somewhere in this vast digital dream factory a legion of Oompa-Loompas are singing songs and playtesting demented hallucinogenic games that will never see the light of day.

All day long you attend demos, spend hands-on time with games, and pepper with questions the people who have devoted the most recent portion of their lives creating the games they're sharing with you. You tour the campus. You go behind the scenes. You see the cubicles, the whiteboards, the character renderings. You visit the gym where they work out and the day care center where their kids learn and play.

You have a terrific time, and you're genuinely grateful for the opportunity. You feel a certain affection for these designers, producers and PR people. They remind you of the restless quixotic creative types you ran with in grad school. You want to help them succeed. You want to reward their efforts. Yeah, you know the score. They want buzz for their games, and they want you to help generate it. That's why you're here. You get that.

Still, you walk into every demo primed to spring out of your seat and proclaim "That was awesome! You people are brilliant!" - partly in gratitude, but mostly because we never get to say such things to the faces of the people who make the games we play.

After you retire to the hotel room you could never afford, you catch your breath and look over your notes from the day. ...And you face it. Nothing excited you. Nothing stood out. Nothing made you want to run to your keyboard with an ebullient tweet or blog post.

Well, maybe one game, but I'll talk about that one after I finish playing it.

So now you feel stuck. You saw 8 games, and the best you can muster is indifference to 7 of them. What do you do now? Write a scowling roundup? An essay full of lukewarm impressions? Maybe a simple informational "here are some upcoming games I saw" post would be more appropriate. Or maybe you just walk away and don't write anything. Most of these games are still in development, so it's possible some rabbits could be pulled from hats.

And maybe you're wrong. Maybe you need more time with these games. Maybe you're not very good at evaluating unfinished games. Maybe we shouldn't evaluate unfinished games in the first place. There's a crazy thought.

I think I've come to understand why game previews tend to be glowing, or at least hopeful. I'm not a games journalist, so I don't make this kind of trip very often, but I'm not sure what purpose is served by slamming an unreleased game. Perhaps I have the luxury of a perspective that's detached from the news delivery imperatives of places like Kotaku or Gamespot. Maybe I'm missing something I ought to be considering. I don't know.

What I do know is that human beings make these games, and when we learn more about each other - when we observe first-hand the earnest hard work and hopefulness of these creators and producers - 'this game r teh sux' responses get replaced by 'it's a shame this game failed' responses, and I believe that's a good thing. It's possible to feel bitterly disappointed by a game, even a little sad perhaps, when you've met the people who worked hard on it and fervently believe in their project. I have a feeling the folks I met already know how the Metacritic beast will treat their games, and maybe that's another reason why doubtful previews serve no useful purpose here.

Please don't look too hard for a thesis here because I don't really have one. I'm writing this post as a way of processing an experience, and I hope you'll forgive me for using this venue in such a self-indulgent way. I'm keenly interested in the potential connecting points between critics and game designers throughout the design process. My little story captures only a sliver, but I'm intrigued by the opportunities inherent in this relationship and the sometimes awkward responsibilities we bear when we write about the games we play.

I plan to keep thinking about it.

ODST and what might have been


For about an hour, I thought this was it. A Halo game for me. A Halo game that could withstand the weight of empathy. A Halo game as devoted to its characters and story as to its brilliant bursts of supercharged combat. A Halo game that blurs the distinction between play and meaning.

From the beginning, Halo's designers have told us everything matters - the Forerunners, the Flood, the Covenant - and the game's lore carefully weaves what has become an episodic mythos. The writers have ensured that all the dots connect, but those dots inevitably feel like window dressing to me. I don't need to connect dots because the game connects them for me. That green A button transports me to the next firefight pronto, and I know (heck, the game itself seems to know) that's Halo's bread and butter.

Halo 3 ODST initially hooked me because it seemed to adroitly dodge the Superhero Conundrum. We must connect to our hero/avatar, but his very nature makes this nearly impossible to achieve via gameplay. His power, the thing that makes him fun, also makes him nearly invulnerable (by Halo 3 Master Chief is essentially a bipedal super-tank).

So the only apparent way to make him interesting is to imbue him with loads of internal conflict. And the only apparent way to convey that conflict is via cutscenes. As Halo/Gears/Infamous et al. have proved, it's cool to be the bad-ass, but that bad-ass is destined to be a brooding cipher, and our attachment to him must come through what we're told about him, not through what we experience first-hand. 

ODST appears to escape this trap by putting you in the shoes of a rookie trooper who must navigate his perilous surroundings and piece together what happened to the rest of his squadmates. Vulnerability, environmental exploration, and rising/falling tension are significant factors, far more than they were with Master Chief. A special visor helps locate enemies and resources, but also alerts enemies of your presence. And, importantly, all of your exploration happens at night.

With these design choices, the Halo team has opened the door to a significantly more immersive blend of gameplay and storytelling. Artifacts I find aren't merely power-ups or collectibles; they're bits of story experienced by my squadmates. The environment isn't just a cleverly arranged arena for firefights; it's both my enemy and my friend as I explore it alone. And the peril I feel connects me to the reality of this rookie trooper's first mission, ill-equipped, uncertain, and never far from death. And, as I mentioned, very much alone.

One additional design feature made me feel certain this Halo was the one. The game fractures its narrative into non-linear pieces, situating the player in the shoes of each main character. Rashomon-like, you experience each part of the story from a different perspective, with the rookie functioning as the hub. Each time the rookie finds an artifact, the player flashes to the connecting scene and plays it out to its conclusion. By the time you've located all the artifacts, the strands of the story have come together in a clever feat of storyweaving.

Playing in the shoes of each character alters the player's relationship to the narrative and characters in a way that might have been meaningful. Might have been.

ODST fails to live up to its promise because it takes so many unfortunate shortcuts. Despite the clever way it unfolds, the plot is standard-issue action movie chaff. Sub-chaff, actually. Rendezvous with your squad. Kill some bad guys. Make a getaway. Cutscene. Insert vehicle sequence. Repeat. It's a crying shame the game doesn't take advantage of the enormous possibilities inherent in its design.

And, sadly, the characters run the gamut of complexity from A to B. They're the same bunch of husky male stereotypes we've seen a million times: Buck, Dutch, Romeo, Mickey - I don't mean to harp on trivial stuff, but who comes up with these names? Needless to say, their personalities match their monikers, and that's a real shame. The game seems interested in establishing various points of view, but then fails to vary anything meaningful about these men...aside from the weapons they carry.

There's a woman too. She's in charge, and you may be led to believe the game will pave a new trail here. But no. Another missed opportunity. The boys make a few google-eyed remarks about her before she's captured and disappears until the end of the game. Ultimately her real function in the game is to provide our intrepid rookie with a rescue mission.

Boiler plate wise-cracking dialogue, a cursory love story subplot, and a disheartening sense of being led by the nose through the game finally sinks ODST's ship, and I have to say I'm genuinely disappointed. Some will say I shouldn't be. This is a Halo game, after all, and 90% of its players blow through the solo mode in a day or two and spend the next year on multiplayer. I understand that.

But it's hard not to see this game as a fat pitch down the middle fouled off to the stands. The unrealized promise of its core design suggests how other designers might move the ball forward (ugh, I'm mixing baseball and football metaphors now), so I suppose I'll walk away from ODST encouraged by what it points to and hopeful that other smart designers are watching. In the meantime, can we talk about those review scores?

Vintage Game Club: tough choice

Thief Starcontrol2 System_shock2box.png Castlevaniasotn_2

The Vintage Game Club has narrowed the list for our 8th collective playthrough to 4 games:

Each is a highly regarded game (dare I trot out the overused "classic" moniker?) that set new standards of excellence when released, and their influences on subsequent games are easily seen. We're discussing the merits of each over in the VGC forum, and you're welcome to join us.

If one of these games is a favorite you'd like to play again - or better yet, if you see a game on this list you've always wanted to play - I encourage you to pop over to the forum and make your wishes known. You'll find a genial group of folks there who enjoy chatting about games in a cordial and supportive environment. 

Tough choice this time, but I guess you could say we can't possibly make a mistake with these options. All are welcome to join us.

The Vintage Game Club

The joy of iteration


Game developers often talk about iteration. When I began writing about games, I was perplexed by this word and even more bewildered by its verb form: iterate. Why, I wondered, would a developer purposely choose to repeat what he or she had done before? My understanding of iteration stemmed from its standard definition: "to do again, repeat," from the Latin "iterationem" which means "repetition."(1)

But a closer look at the etymology of the word reveals that a common synonym for iterate is rehearse, and when I discovered that little tidbit, the full meaning of the word opened up to me. In the theater we don't practice a play; we rehearse it. Practice implies doing something over and over again until you get it right. Rehearsal is a discovery process wherein doing something again reveals new ideas or information that can be useful in the creation of something we collaboratively build. The kinship I feel with game designers and developers comes from this sense that we speak each other's language...even if I don't know a thing about middleware or C++.

I mention this because the genius of the iterative process is clearly at work in the game I've been playing for the last ten days, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. While it's possible to see iteration as a way of cashing in on a successful game - adding a few features and pumping out an annual edition - the latest Mario & Luigi game suggests its predecessors have essentially been rehearsals for this culminating masterpiece. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the finest and most fully realized Mario RPG ever made, and that's saying something for a highly regarded franchise that includes the original Super Mario RPG, the Paper Mario series, and two previous Mario & Luigi games.


If careful iteration produces notable refinements, what's so refined about BIS? Aside from its top-to-bottom graphical polish and colorful interface, (aesthetically, this game sets a new standard for sprite design and animation on the DS), the game distinguishes itself in two areas that have become M&L signatures: writing and tone. It's easy to isolate the gameplay elements, the RPG elements, the platforming elements, etc., and these all contribute to the experience BIS delivers. But I contend the flavor and spirit of this game are communicated most powerfully via its sharp canny dialogue and self-aware conceit that establish a playful link between game and player.

Mario & Luigi games are a hoot because they're cleverly written and expertly localized. Developer AlphaDream distills the signature characteristics of each Mushroom Kingdom resident and gives comedic voice to those traits. Dialogue is often delivered in a manner reminiscent of Chaplin's City Lights, with voices speaking gobbledygook in varying pitches suited to each character, ridiculing the notion that characters must speak, but embracing the necessity.

The game winks at the player by ripping styles of dialogue from other games. Globins talk in medieval fantasy-speak ("Thou hast dropped something in yon mucus pool, methinks"); Fawful, by far the most entertaining character, speaks in badly translated Japanese-to-English ("Fawful is gorging on his plan of win! And still he has hunger!") and ("Now I have chortle time. Fawful scattered your minions like litter from a sad ugly cat. Are you wanting to hear them? For they are on the TV show. The TV show of your tears.")

Bowser, a big dumb vain lug encounters a standard-issue sensei trainer who speaks in spiritual non sequiturs:

Bowser: That doesn't even make sense!
Midbus: Sense is for the weak.
Bowser: (smashing his own head with his fists) Stop talking to me!!
Midbus: You are unenlightened.

More than in previous games, BIS presents a humorous, but disturbing picture of a society ruled by a charismatic leader. Fawful has brainwashed the citizens, and an eerie cult of personality has emerged that won't tolerate dissent:

Citizen: Fawful trading cards, Fawful keychains, fudgy Fawful cookies! Fawful action figures, hot Fawful sausages, Fawful magic beverages! I gotta buy it ALL, man!

Citizen: If you asked me what Lord Fawful's best feature was, I'd have to say those sweet swirly glasses. Those swirls show the cyclical nature of the world, am I right? Now THAT is deep fashion.

Citizen: His best feature is his marvelous teeth. In those spotless, shiny teeth, we see our very souls reflected. They're our greatest treasure.


All of BIS's humor and mashed up gameplay (it's an action adventure puzzle-solving RPG platformer) is encased in a stylish self-aware wrapper that, in my view, is the real hallmark of the series. Every game can be seen as a kind of dialogue between game and player. But the interaction between BIS and an engaged player occurs simultaneously on many levels, like two jugglers working together to keep many balls in the air. To me, this all adds up to a signature tone that I find irresistible.

The game knows it's a game. It knows it's a Nintendo game. More importantly, it knows it's a game you hold in your hands. Even more importantly, it knows it's a Mario game you hold in your hands. BIS plays with this awareness in innumerable ways, from subtle character cameos and self-mocking Wii Fit craze references to mini-games and rhythm challenges that put you under the hood, so to speak, of Bowser's ridiculously prodigious feats of strength and gluttony. Playing as Bowser (it's really more like playing on behalf of Bowser, a pivotal distinction) is a blast, and the control/gameplay differences between him and M&L are stark and tangible.

BIS knows Bowser is an empty 2-dimensional character, so it locates you inside that space, transfigured to a game space with all the Mushroom Kingdom accoutrements. And so you're Mario and Luigi on the bottom screen, and you're Bowser on the top screen...except that you're not. You're manipulating a piece of gaming hardware (buttons, stylus, screens, microphone, book mode - you name it) to navigate in, out and around Bowser's body, and the game consistently reminds you of this thematically and mechanically. The benefits of iteration can be seen mostly clearly here, as the game's masterful use of the DS contrasts sharply with the tacked-on feel of its predecessor Partners in Time.

A downside of iteration is that it can sometimes lead to feature-bloat, and BIS teeters on the brink of it. The rhythm game additions are a welcome touch, but the maze-like complexity of some areas is needlessly confusing, and the backtracking required occasionally feels tedious. My main complaint, likely not shared by many others, is the game's length. It took me nearly 30 hours to complete BIS, and while most of that time felt fun and rewarding, most players will never see the end, and that's a shame. I had the luxury (?) of playing the game for extended sessions during a bout of the flu. Remembering where you are and what you're doing could be challenge if you take an extended break between play sessions.

Quibbles aside, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is one of the best games I've played this year, and it's another reason (Scribblenauts and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor are two others) to keep your DS charged up and close at hand. As Toadsworth says, "I feel like a gut spelunker." Who knew spelunking guts could be so much fun?

I'll take refinement

Scribblenauts-ds-game-box-artwork       M&L

Two games released one day apart, and the critical response that greeted them, suggest to me that we sometimes overvalue what we deem innovation and undervalue refinement in game design. Those two games: Scribblenauts and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story paint a telling picture of how the critical discourse surrounding games gravitates to and celebrates the new while overlooking the familiar, even when the familiar excels in every aspect of its design and demonstrably surpasses the new in quality, charm, artistry, and execution.

A couple of clarifying points. I'm not talking about reviews. The new Mario & Luigi game has been warmly received, and its 92 bests Scribblenauts' 85 in the vainglorious blunt-force aggregator Metacritic. Many reviewers have rightly pointed out that Mario & Luigi: BIS is the best in a highly-regarded M&L series, and they have rightly urged you to purchase it with your hard-earned money.

Reviewers have rightly lauded Scribblenauts' "Write Anything, Solve Everything" design as enabling a kind of emergent puzzle action gameplay we haven't seen before, and they've rightly quibbled with the game's wonky controls. I hesitate to say if you've read one review of Scribblenauts you've read them all; but I just typed it, so I guess I did.

Scribblenauts deserves all the praise heaped upon it - I myself pronounced it a "pretty good game, but a magnificent toy" in one of those 140-character empty sound-bytes Twitter seduces us to proclaim for our followers' consumption. I like Scribblenauts; I admire Scribblenauts; and I'm glad we've all paid attention to it. It's not a great game, but in this case that seems almost beside the point. I can summon a T-Rex, a rocket launcher, and God himself to do my bidding...and that's really cool.

I also understand that "new" is a good thing, and we need it, even in flawed first attempts, to advance and evolve. Encountering a game like Scribblenauts feels like a discovery, and much of the writing devoted to it adopts that tone. So I'm not exactly surprised when I search my RSS feeds and turn up well over 200 citations for Scribblenauts and less than 40 for Mario & Luigi. Scribblenauts was, for awhile, the talk of the town in a way that a new M&L game could never be.

But Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (despite its cumbersome title) is a smashingly good game, and it deserves at least as much critical consideration as Scribblenauts - or any other game for that matter. It succeeds on so many levels - including ones like pacing and humor that precious few games get right - and it delivers on its vision so spot-on perfectly that it begs to be scrutinized.

If games this good were easy to make, we'd see more of them. The fact is, they aren't; and developer AlphaDream has essentially worked in the shadows carefully refining an RPG series that dates back to Super Mario RPG. I think it's worth considering how and why they've succeeded, and that's what I'll attempt to do in my next post. If you have thoughts on the game, I hope you'll feel free to share them too.

Why we Sim: your story


This is the last of three posts devoted to The Sims 3. I'm trying to convince you that we ought to pay more attention to this game's facility as a storytelling machine. In my first post I explained why this latest version of the game converted me from a Sims-hater; and in my second post I related a story that emerged from my own encounter with The Sims 3. Here I'll try to account for why so many people love this game.

I recently put out a call to Sims players, asking them to explain why they play the game. I was delighted by the response, and I'm grateful for what I learned. Most who replied have experience dating back to the original game released in 2000, and all have played or are currently playing The Sims 3. Here's what a few of them told me:

Shawn Stone
The Sims 3 is my favorite RPG of 2009. Some people may have trouble considering it an RPG as it's in the "Simulation" category, but this is a life simulation now only to the point at which it needs to be so to be credible. I honestly wish that the NPCs in Oblivion, Mass Effect or Fallout behaved as interestingly or had as much personality as the characters in my Sims 3 game. Believable characters make even the emergent stories that I tell myself in this game that much more entertaining. Half-Life 2 achieved a new level of believable characters with the animation and modeling, but the AI was still not quite up to believably reacting to any kind of behavior you can throw at it. In The Sims 3, I feel like every cause I enact on the game world is met with a sensible effect, especially from the characters.

The ownership and feeling of personal connection with this game is so great that people identify with it on a real personal level. Sprinkle in eccentric humor, expressive characters, a complex emoticon language and a robust genetics/aging/reproduction system and you have an RPG you can play for (character) generations.


Tracy Whitelaw
The aspect of the Sims that I find enjoyable is that it encourages an emotional bond with the characters. Because I create the characters, develop them and am ultimately responsible for them, this definitely adds to the appeal of 'checking in on them'. Most other games don't offer this.

I had quite the unexpected emotional moment when I realised that one of my Sims had been stuck in an area it was unable to get out of and had died due to that. I felt terrible about it! Even though I knew I could simply rebuild a new character up to the same level, my emotional response to that event has stuck in my mind.

The Sims 3 advances the Sims series in a meaningful way because a lot of what you do outside of your home in the neighborhood is now as important as what you do inside your home. The previous Sims titles seemed far more disjointed as much of what happened outside the home didn't count. Time tended to 'stand still' when leaving the home, but now it doesn't.


Yu Zun Kang
I've always contended that The Sims series has been, and always will be, one of the best examples of games as pure interactive experiences...The game's significance doesn't lie in its "story space," but in its narrative space. There is a distinct difference between "story" and "narrative"; and within that difference we see that there have always been finite variations of a "story" to tell, and infinite manners in which a "story" can be told. We find narrative in that infinity.

The Sims allows you to navigate a story (i.e. life), and then allows you to create your own narrative through the manner in which you decide to play. Where the medium of video games differentiates itself from other artistic mediums is that you literally fill those gaps yourself by physically manipulating the space...By engaging with whatever work of art, in whatever medium, we push against the tyranny of story (a tyranny which is imposed upon us). I think a lot of games are catching up to the purity of interaction that has been available in The Sims. It hasn't always been successful (e.g. Noby Noby Boy), but when we think about games as a pure medium of interaction, freed from the confines and influences of other established mediums (film, tv, novels, etc.), The Sims is the purest example of what makes this medium so unique.


Mike Schiller
I'm playing The Sims 3 casually...and I really like the "game" aspects of it -- the sort of achievement system that is implemented via "life goals" is a really nice touch, especially given how little pressure you're under to actually achieve them. What impressed me the most, though, was the ability to say "I'm going to have Personality X and I'm going to try to do Y as the game goes on", and then carry out that plan. Sure, things like money get in the way of being a rich Lothario with an entourage hanging around the mansion at all times, but if the right choices are made, you can do it. The engine that EA has working in here is a marvel, and it makes me giggle with delight more often than any "dollhouse" has a right to.


Denis Farr
As for why I play the Sims? I do it off and how many people I know play Solitaire. A break, something to take up time, but not take too much energy. The loveliness I find behind this particular pastime are the stories I can tell, and that are not fully within my hands. While I can just write my own stories, when there is a bounded playfield and one with a measure of entropy, I am forced to not just tell my story, but tell my story within confines.

While many games offer things similar to this, Sims offers the most open interpretation of it, not providing me with even the most skeletal of plots through which to progress. Much like with the hierarchy found in Maslow's pyramid of needs to self-actualization, the paths to the top of a career level in the game are much more multi-faceted. Instead of adhering to a rigid set of rules, the gameplay has been loosened so as to both give the player more control and allow many different paths for a Sim to achieve his or her desires and goals. The gameplay is simpler, less demanding [than previous Sims games], thereby allowing more creativity on behalf of the player, and more options for basic gameplay for a Sim.


Jessica Pearson
Why do I play The Sims? For me, I get attached to the characters. I love creating a Sim and then watching them interact with the world. I love helping navigate them through life, and helping them "be happy." I'm the type of person that really gets attached to characters in TV shows and movies, more than flashy effects or crazy drama. Give me good characters, and I'm hooked. The same principle comes to play with me and this game. I'm currently doing a Legacy Challenge (where you start with one Sim on the biggest empty lot with only $1400, and you have to play through 10 generations while following specific rules) and I'm so attached to my family. I have to schedule my playing time so that I don't spend all of my time in the game, furthering their lives. That's something that's very different from any other game.


Dan Bruno
I don't feel like I "play" The Sims in the way that the designers presumably intended. Though it's ostensibly a life simulation, I've always found it more engaging as a series of sandboxes (home decorator, philanderer, omniscient serial killer). I'm much more likely to cheat in The Sims than in any other game because I'd rather toy with the various mechanics than pursue the more directed, more traditional rags-to-riches gameplay. I think of it as more of a toy than a game, I suppose.

That said, I think The Sims 3's new features start to swing the pendulum the other way. Choosing traits feels like creating an RPG class, "moodlets" are analogous to buffs and debuffs in an MMO, controlling multiple Sims at once plays like an RTS, etc. The upshot of all this, I think, is that The SIms 3 appeals to the sandbox-lovers and the gamers alike (as well as those of us who are somewhere in between).


TreaAndrea Russworm
The Sims allows for expansive narrative experiences. I decide the biographies of my characters, create robust stories and play them out over generations. It's like a digital soap opera and I'm the director. I'm the writer.

You feel like you're controlling that universe, but there's always room for spontaneity. You may decide a character will remain single, but if you give her free will and she meets someone she matches up well with, she may decide to get married. The family component of the Sims universe is especially appealing. I'll never forget the first time I saw a family have a baby and raise it as a toddler. One day I saw her standing in her crib crying. I zoomed in and looked at her and felt this powerful need to notify her parents and tell them to help her.

Hacks, mods, and custom content is also a very big part of the Sims experience. The Sims community is creating amazing stuff. New career tracks, objects, etc. Fans exert an ownership of the game that emanates from both inside and outside the game.

Space prevents me from including all the helpful responses I received, but these are characteristic of the things people told me about their experiences with The Sims. Many thanks to all who kindly responded to my call.

If you'd like to read more about The Sims, here are a few articles I recommend.


Challenging Notions of Gendered Game Play: Teenagers playing The Sims. By: Beavis, Catherine; Charles, Claire. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, Sep2005, Vol. 26 Issue 3, p355-367

Digital Allegories (on The Sims). By: Wark, McKenzie. Grey Room, Fall2006, Issue 25, p126-138, 12p

Do the Sims Dream of Electric Sheep? By: Brophy-Warren, Jamin. Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition, 5/29/2009, Vol. 153 Issue 124, pW7-W7

Rethinking agency and immersion: video games as a means of consciousness-raising. By: Frasca, Gonzalo. Digital Creativity, Sep2001, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p167

SIM NATION. By: Grossman, Lev; Song, Sora. Time Europe, 1/20/2003, Vol. 161 Issue 3, p50

Sims Family Values. (cover story) By: Croal, N'Gai; Joseph, Nadine; Suciu, Peter; Juarez, Vanessa Marie; Stone, Brad. Newsweek, 11/25/2002, Vol. 140 Issue 22, p46

The prize for literature goes to...The Sims. Times Higher Education Supplement, 12/2/2005, Issue 1720, p16-16

The Sims: Real Life as Genre. By: Nutt, Diane; Railton, Diane. Information, Communication & Society, Dec2003, Vol. 6 Issue 4, p577-592   

Vintage Game Club: what's next?


We're tossing around suggestions for the Vintage Game Club's next collective playthrough. Among the games being discussed:

  • System Shock 2
  • Marathon: Durandal
  • Another World / Out of this World
  • Star Control 2 (The Ur-Quan Masters)
  • DOOM
  • Planescape: Torment
  • Metroid Prime
  • Command & Conquer
  • Thief

Not a bad list, eh?

As I've mentioned before, we use the term "vintage" purposely because its primary definition: "Characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal" strikes us as just the right way to describe the games we play together. As far as we're concerned a vintage game can be 20 years old or 5 years old. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter.

If you'd like to add your support for one of these games, or suggest others, feel free to visit the VGC forum and make your voice heard. All are welcome.

Why we Sim: my story


I believe it's time we paid more attention to The Sims. Despite its obvious success as the best-selling PC game in history, lots of us so-called core gamers have blissfully (arrogantly, perhaps?) ignored the franchise during the decade of its existence, and it's easy to understand why.

From the beginning the game appeared to target players seeking an alternative to arcade-style games, shooters, RPGs, and sports titles. Even fans of Will Wright's previous work, SimCity, saw in The Sims a departure from strategy-based play in favor of what Wright described as a "digital dollhouse" with no set objectives.

An incessant stream of releases - 3 major games and 15 expansions in 9 years - likely contributed to a perception of The Sims as less a video game than a virtual Barbie clubhouse with endless fashion accessories. The game's appeal to casual players (65% of Sims players are women, according to EA) may also have kept 'serious' gamers away, with special-focus expansions like The Sims: Pets and Hot Date further solidifying the game's reputation as frivolous fun for casuals.

FYI, The Sims expansions alone have outsold Call of Duty 4 and both Gears of War games.

We need to pay more attention to The Sims because the latest version of the game quietly succeeds at doing the very things many of us say we want games to do. It is, in a way unique to other games, a storytelling machine that enables a motivated player willing to engage with it a range of self-expression and interactivity unmatched by other games.

Its wish fulfillment focused gameplay (its designers call it a "happiness factory") enriches the player's experience by functioning as a procedural quest system, flexing to respond to the player's choices in ways that feel meaningful. Yes, micromanaging can still be a pain; and yes, the game artificially limits one's range of choices. But this third major iteration manages to move these limits to the periphery of the player's experience far more successfully than its predecessors.

It's entirely possible to create / tell / enact a rich story in The Sims 3, as I discovered in my first hours with it. Rather than attempt a structural analysis or feature-list description of the game, I'll offer an account of my story - a story that occurred inside the game and resulted purely from my choices, actions and interactions with the game. I'll retell my story as a first-person diary because that voice best conveys how I experienced it.

I moved to Sunset Galley with my baby daughter Zoe. I'm a single-parent without much money, so we bought a small unfurnished house near the center of town to avoid the need for a car. I'm a writer with dreams of becoming a professional author, and I hope to find work in town. My immediate goals are to care for my daughter and earn enough money to buy furniture for our house and put food on the table. I'm a hopeless romantic, and I feel certain that the partner of my dreams is living somewhere in this beautiful little town. But I'm in no hurry.

Each day I spend time teaching Zoe to walk and talk, and it's fun watching her respond. But I'm discovering it's hard for me to find time for myself. Zoe needs constant supervision, and I'm the only one who can feed her, play with her, change her diapers, and make sure she gets enough sleep. The only time I have to myself are the evenings after she's gone to sleep, and by then I'm so exhausted I can barely function.

Soon, my days and nights have reversed, and I find myself cleaning the kitchen at 3am and sleeping in my bed at 3pm. Zoe doesn't seem to mind, but days are passing, and I'm not leaving the house. I haven't met any of my neighbors, and I haven't had time to look for a job. We've got $1200 saved, but we're eating through it fast. I'm getting stir crazy, and I need some recreation.

Somehow Zoe and I are on opposite schedules. She wakes up crying, needing to be changed and fed, but I've only slept an hour or two. I'm growing increasingly zombie-like, functioning on little sleep and making lots of little mistakes. Today I collapsed from exhaustion. I decide to confine Zoe to her crib, even though she's not sleepy, so I can get some sleep. It doesn't work, and I feel like a terrible father.

My refrigerator broke and my toilet stopped working. The repair bill was more than I expected, but I was happy to see the repairman. He's the first human, besides Zoe, that I've interacted with since moving here. I need to get out, and I need to make money.

Museums make me happy, so I hire a babysitter and visit the local art museum. I instantly feel more peaceful, and it's fun to walk around and explore. Then, I see her. A beautiful woman named Agnes staring at a painting. I decide to strike up a conversation, and she responds in a friendly manner. We talk about art and a variety of other subjects, and she seems to like me. So I begin to flirt a little, and she responds in kind. We have much in common. I discover she's single and a hopeless romantic who loves art, books, and music just like me. I press a little too hard, and she waves me off; but she accepts my apology. This could lead to something good. When I return home I'm tired and hungry, but my happiness meter is sky-high. I can't stop thinking about Agnes.

The next day I call Agnes and invite her to my house. She accepts and comes right over. I'm delighted to see that she enjoys playing with Zoe, who I've admittedly ignored for the last day or two. As long as I can keep Zoe clean and fed, she seems to do well on her own. I probably need to spend more time teaching her to talk, but I've been terribly busy.

After a few more visits and lots more flirting, Agnes is now my girlfriend. She comes over any time I ask, but no matter what I do, she won't sleep with me. I soon become obsessed with getting her in bed, but every time I ask she backs away. She'll happily spend the night (even though Zoe keeps her awake), but she refuses to have sex with me.

After thinking it over, I decide Agnes won't sleep with me because we're not engaged, so I pop the question. I justify this choice by saying she'll make an excellent mother to Zoe, but that's not really a factor. I just want her to sleep with me. Agnes excitedly accepts, and sure enough, that night we have "Woo Hoo" for the first time. Things are looking up, but I still don't have a job and I'm nearly out of money.

The next day, I get a note reminding me to buy a present for Zoe's birthday. I file it away and give Agnes a call to meet me at the library. After perusing the stacks for awhile, Agnes leaves to go home, I presume. But when I go to see her there, I'm told she's at the park. When I arrive, I discover her speaking and laughing with another man. At this moment when my jealous obsession began. I was certain Agnes was seeing someone else behind my back.

So I began following her. Not on foot, but with my camera. The Sims 3 enables me to control the game's camera and zoom in anywhere I choose. I began tracking Agnes' movements around town from my living room. I spent hours watching her move from place to place, shopping, reading, visiting the museum - everywhere she went. I did this for 3 days.

And I missed Zoe's birthday. Forgot all about it. Suddenly, without me realizing it, she had grown into a little girl. I received the following message:

Due to her difficult upbringing, you will not be allowed to choose a trait for Zoe. Zoe has developed the Insane trait.

Zoe, who had received precious little attention from me, was now a little girl who wandered aimlessly talking to herself. It hit me hard, and I blamed my self-absorption. But at least she was now able to feed and bathe herself, and when the school bus arrived to take her to school, I now had hours to be productive. I got a job and began meeting other people in town. I also began visiting Agnes' house, which was the biggest in town. Agnes, it turns out was rich! I decided to befriend her family and I began hanging out at her place, eating their food, reading their books, and making Woo Hoo with Agnes in her bed. It was great. Who needs a job anyway?

One day I returned home to see Zoe off to school and decided to make her breakfast before she left. I was tired and apparently careless, and I set the stove on fire. Zoe stood and stared blankly as the firefighters arrived to put out the blaze. She talked to the trash can.

When the time came for her school bus, it never arrived. Instead, two men from the child welfare office came and informed me that I had neglected to adequately care for Zoe, and they took her away. They took her away. I removed my hands from the keyboard, stood up, and cried. It was all my fault.

A few days later, Zoe called me on the phone. I was given the option to accept or reject the call. I rejected it. Game over. I deleted the save file and started a new game. I started over.

I recently asked some Sims players to explain why they play the game. I'll return in my next post to share what they've taught me.

On the way

A quick post to apologize for not updating sooner. I've just returned from a trip to EA's headquarters in Redwood Shores where I spoke to some Sims and MySims developers and took an early look at some upcoming games.

As you may know, I recently posted about my experience playing The Sims 3, and I have much more to say about that game - informed, I hope, by conversations with a variety of long-time Sims players, some Q&A with EA devs, and more time spent with the game. Look for a new post tomorrow.

I think you'll find this interesting. Even if you're not a Sims player (heck, even if you hate the series), I believe the newest version is quietly demonstrating a mode of storytelling with important implications for broader game design. I'll try to explain why I think so in the next post or two.

I'll also cover the games I saw at EA. Many of these left me...well, uninspired; but one in particular has me on the edge of my seat. I'll tell you all about it later this week.

As always, thanks for reading. Happy gaming!

Summer of Confabs - vol. 5

Dahlen    Manveer

The Summer of Confabs concludes with a conversation featuring Chris Dahlen of Edge Online and The Onion A.V. Club; and Manveer Heir of Raven Software and the Design Rampage blog.

We discuss ambiguity in games, why nobody's talking about Dragon Age, Nintendo on the margins, integrating social media the right and wrong way, and many other topics.

I hope you've enjoyed this series. It's been a pleasure bringing these shows to you, and I'm especially grateful to all my guests who made it possible. I hope you'll also check out segments 1, 2, 3, and 4.

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Wrecking the dollhouse


I've played every iteration of The Sims franchise and never been hooked. Something has always stood between me and the game: repetition, cludgy interface, trivial tasks, artificial interactions - I want to like The Sims, but the game won't let me. I feel like an outsider drawn to a party I'm not invited to. I want in, but after I'm there I can't wait to leave.

Well, guess what? While all my friends have been playing the new Batman game, I've been devoting every spare moment I can find to The Sims 3. After ignoring it for months, I dove into the game...and suddenly I got it. A door opened, a light went on, my invitation arrived, and now I'm partying with 50 million people whose devotion to this game I've never understood.

How did it happen? Two big reasons: 1) The Sims 3 refines its formula enough to make me feel welcome. 2) I refined my thinking to more fully grasp the true nature of the game. Rather than bending the game to my will, I allowed it to play me as I played it. And this made all the difference.

The Sims 3 is a storytelling machine. I prefer this definition to "life simulator" because I think it more accurately reflects the nature of my engagement and the rewards the game can bestow. Despite its AI enhancements and graphical upgrades The Sims 3 cannot accurately simulate life as we live it. But it is remarkably capable of creating an environment and a lively flow of circumstances that provoke the player to build a life that can be lived inside the game. Sim life can still be a chore, but the chore communicates meaning now.

Within this framework it's possible - joyfully and painfully so - to play in the purest sense: to imagine, to theorize, to commit, to escape, to act out and even reflect on those actions. If engagement is indeed a choice, then choosing to fully engage in The Sims 3 means you are crafting a story inside a machine that can make that story feel contextually resonant. The Sims 3 is not a glorified dollhouse because dolls don't really need you. Dolls can't learn from you. Dolls don't die and leave you to pick up the pieces.

I'm admittedly stunned by my sudden embrace of The Sims. I didn't see it coming, and I'm not sure if it will last. But for now I'm deeply intrigued by the game as a story space, and I must say I'm still reeling from the story that unfolded for me in my first encounter with The Sims 3. I'll recount that story in my next post. I've also been corresponding with other players, most of whom have many more miles on their Sims tires than me. They've taught me some useful lessons that I'm eager to share with you.

If you're a longtime Sims-avoider like me, I encourage you to spend time with the latest version. Fussy time management has been replaced by a system EA likes to call a "happiness factory." That phrase makes me cringe, but it does reflect an essential aspect of The Sims 3 design. If your primary goal is realizing your dreams (as opposed to, say, emptying your bladder) and building your own road to reach them, you're more likely to discover and weave a story that's personally connected to you. The Sims 3 facilitates this kind of game/player interaction in ways its predecessors have failed to do. For that reason alone, you may find this Sims finally wrecks the dollhouse forever.

Summer of Confabs - vol. 4

Benfritz2  KirkBattle  NickLaLone

I'm celebrating podcast episode 25 with five new installments of the Gamers Confab. I hope you'll also check out segments 1, 2 and 3.

The Summer of Confabs continues with a conversation featuring Ben Fritz, L.A. Times entertainment reporter; Kirk Battle (a.k.a. L.B. Jeffries) from PopMatters and Banana Pepper Martinis; and Nick LaLone from Before Game Design.

We discuss the Nintendo platform conundrum, left-behind gameplay, and the elusiveness of innovation, among other topics.

Stay tuned for the final confab in the series, arriving tomorrow. I hope you enjoy.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
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Show links: