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November 2009

It lives


Ya ain't in Mrs. Quitter's School for Resettin' Babies no more. It's time ya graduated, kid! --Resetti

Thanksgiving was a holiday feast of gaming at my house, mainly because I decided to try something a little out of character for me. Rather than focus on one game at a time, I cracked open several at once and took a bite of each.

So I played roughly an hour of Assassin's Creed 2, a little Left 4 Dead 2, some Forza 3, a taste of FIFA 10 (notice a trend here?) - and of course plenty more Demon's Souls, multiplayer New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Beatles Rock Band. I'm not sure when "feast" becomes "gluttony," but I probably crossed that line, eh? ;-)

All these games interest me, and I intend to more fully explore each. But a funny thing happened Thursday afternoon, and I didn't see it coming. I played a game that's been sitting on my shelf for over a year, and I immediately knew what I'd be writing about on Monday: Animal Crossing.

Wait, don't run away. Let me explain.

First, the obvious question. Why, with a cornucopia of new games beckoning me, would I return to a game I've thoroughly played? Because it was Thanksgiving, and the question suddenly occurred to me "I wonder what happens on Thanksgiving in Animal Crossing?" When you stop to think about it, the question itself is a pretty remarkable thing.

I've pondered Animal Crossing's strange allure here before, but I don't think I've fully appreciated its special magic, particularly compared to other games. Animal Crossing's simple blocky abstractions communicate a living world that exists on its own. It invites me in and offers me opportunities for interaction, but it's fine without me too.

As I discovered when I returned to my little town on Thursday, the residents don't sit around moping while I'm gone. They go about their little lives and, if they're not satisfied, they move out. What's more, before they go, they sometimes leave you a little note saying, basically, "Too bad we couldn't have been closer friends. I'm out of here."

This past Thursday the City Folks edition of Animal Crossing celebrated the Harvest Festival, and Mayor Tortimer entrusted me with a knife and fork. I proceeded to distribute these among the town's residents before discovering a very jittery turkey named Franklin who expressed grave concerns about being invited to a feast in his honor. "Can you believe it?" he says, "You could even see where the word 'dish' was erased and replaced with guest'! I should never have come. I should have stayed at home and locked the doors."

Animal Crossing is filled with such little moments, to be found only on certain days and for a limited time. Sure, I could manipulate the Wii's clock and game the system, but such behavior feels like a betrayal to me. Despite my awareness of all the ones and zeros whirring beneath its surface, I gleefully accept the game's invitation to move in and mix with the locals, plant flowers, run errands, catch fish, decorate my home, and keep silly appointments with friends.

I do it because the game holds up its end of the bargain so beautifully. It rewards me for embracing it, and it plays with me in wonderfully clever moments of self-reflexivity. One of my favorite characters in the entire game universe is Resetti, the angry mole who pops out of the ground to berate you if you don't remember to save before quitting the game. Animal Crossing: City Folk contains 10 separate rants from Resetti, each increasingly unhinged and hysterical.

If you do nothing else in Animal Crossing, you owe it to yourself to reset your Wii before saving, just to experience the madness that is Resetti. Here's just a taste:

After your first reset:

Resetti: Ah, so it's you...
Oh, I ain't surprised, kid. Nah, I had a feelin' in my gut you'd pull a stunt like this. The gut don't lie. I can see ya thinkin' furiously over there, right? "How'd that sly mole catch me? Is he a ninja?" No ninja.

Nah, over at the Reset Center, we got us a switchboard that lightsup when someone resets.
No magic, no ninjas. Just the way of the world. Bad deeds don't go unpunished for long, get me, kid?

But hey, even a bright kid like you makes mistakes, am I right? Or heck, maybe ya just misheard me.
Yeah, so today I'll just run down the basics for ya again, hopin' deeply that they sink in this time. Ya still remember my whole speech about the right way to end your time in Animal Crossing, right? Right. Ya either sleep in the attic bed, or ya hit that save button. Either way's just peachy by me. Look atcha, noddin'. Ya do remember. Maybe try usin' that noodle to remember the rest of my advice, huh?

Listen good, [name]. Ya live life, and all that time ya spend, that's what becomes your memories. Memories are precious, kid. And same goes for your time in Animal Crossing. Every second is precious. Now, since everythin' is so precious, don'tcha wanna make sure ya preserve those precious moments? There ain't no bigger waste than just throwin' away a whole page of memories just like that. That's why I want ya to make sure ya save before quittin'. Simple enough, ain't it, kid?

Wonderful. Helpin' kids like yourself see the light makes me a happy mole. I'm ecstatic over here. Now, allow me to hammer this message home so it stays in that brain of yours. You can save your game by catching some Zs in the attic bed, or by pressin' the save button, OK, kid?

Don't forget it! Now...


After your 4th reset:

Resetti: .........Cripes, do ya ever learn, kid?
......... ......Phew...... ...............

Man, been a while since I had to yell like that. I'm seein' spots over here. I'm startin' to think I ain't never met someone with a melon as hard as yours, but that won't stop this mole!

Look... Let's forget about other games for a sec, huh? See, we're talkin' about Animal Crossing: City Folk. It's unique, kid. And as such, I get sent here to suggest that ya hold off on frivolous resettin'. And then, uh... Oh yeah, then I tell ya about how there's no resettin' in real life...right?

And sure, you're probably all bent now, wonderin' why some mole's gotta yell atcha while you're playin'. Well, games got rules, kid, so excuse me if I ask ya to get unbent, and quick.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm mostly like that one company prez who just wants to make folks smile... But when that reset alarm starts ringin', I could be in the shower, sittin' down to eat, sleepin'... It don't matter! When it goes off, I gotta get up and go stick it to whatever punk just pressed that button.

You probably can't tell, but I'm wearin' a T-shirt for undies under here! Think it feels good?! Whatever.

I think ya got somethin' to chew on now. Heard me? Quit resettin'! Got that? Good.
Oh yeah, one more nugget of advice for ya. If you're gonna take a bath, make sure ya get the water up to your shoulders, ya grubby little potato! ...Of course, it don't do no good if ya don't scrub, too.

Anyway, I said my piece. Now...


Animal Crossing fits no particular game genre. It contains no story, 3-D characters, puzzles, platforming, or vast explorable worlds. The town it builds for you is quite tiny and offers a fairly small number of things to do. And yet, in its own indelibly peculiar way, it lives.

If you're curious about Animal Crossing's charms, you may also enjoy this short essay over at Games Aren't Numbers.


Popeye Small craft warning: Sentimentality storm ahead with windy sincerity. Proceed with caution.

Thanksgiving is the one holiday we haven't screwed up. Or maybe it's the one we've screwed up the least. Retailers insist on leveraging it as a launchpad for the Christmas marketing onslaught, and they've successfully managed to commandeer the day after, "Black Friday," as a shoppers feeding frenzy.

But most of us here in the States still think of Thanksgiving as a time to gather with family and friends and reflect on the things that matter to us. I've been doing a bit of that lately.

When I think about this blog, I think about a place that's become a significant part of my daily life, and I realize how much it means to me. And I feel thankful.

This is the place I come to express myself. It's the place I come to share ideas and experiences with friends. It's the place I come to learn and grow in my understanding of these lovely games that bring me so much joy. It's a certain kind of home.

I'm grateful to be part of a community that welcomed me when it could just as easily have ignored me, or smirked at the musings of a middle-aged prof who doesn't quite fit in. I'm thankful for the people who took time out of their lives to read something I wrote. I'm thankful for all the comments and advice and helpful recommendations.

I'm thankful for all the times when the conversation rose above the fray; when people tried hard to listen and empathize and learn. I'm thankful for the all times you helped me see my limits and consider my blind spots. I'm thankful nobody told me to shut up about Flower, Little Big Planet, or my kids.

I'm grateful for all the gamer friends I've made online. Real friends. Not virtual ones.

And I'm thankful for the games, and the thousands of hours, and the thousands of people who make them. I don't do best-of roundups, mostly because a list I'd make today would probably look very different from a list I'd make tomorrow. Today I'm loving the new Mario after breakfast with family. Yesterday, it was Demon's Souls at 2:30am by myself.

All I know is I can't think of a single moment this year when I ran out of games I wanted to play. There's always a game I want to play; usually a stack of them. And I'm thankful for that too.

So, thanks for indulging my need to say thanks. :-) I'm taking a few days off for the holiday, but I'll be back on Monday with a new post. Happy gaming everyone.

Woo Hoo!


It was Thanksgiving 1992, and my mother and I were in the kitchen preparing the family feast. Suddenly we heard a loud squeal, followed by a wailing "Oh NO!", and then a burst of laughter. "They're playing that go-kart thing again," she said. "Yup," I replied, "Super Mario Kart." "Well," she remarked, "It's better than listening to them watch football."

Seventeen Thanksgivings later, Mario will once again provoke laughter and shouting in my living room, this time channeling his classic sidescrolling roots in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. After a week of playing this game by myself and with family and friends, I'm struck by an undeniable fact: Nintendo remains the developer who best understands how to bring people together for a rollicking time.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is pure genius. Those who have characterized this game as a lazy sequel to SMB 3 and Super Mario World, with little to distinguish it beyond a multiplayer mode, cannot possibly have played the same game I'm playing. Knowing some will consider it heresy, I contend NSMBW surpasses both of those games in its clever level design, gameplay variety, difficulty progression, and player-friendly features.

As a single-player experience NSMBW will shiver your timbers with tough, imaginative challenges over dozens of widely varying levels and environments. Is this game tougher or easier than its predecessors? I don't know, and I frankly don't care. This game stands on its own, building on the firm foundations of prior Super Mario games, but conveying its own colorful identity. Yes, it contains in-game hint movies; and yes, Luigi pops in after 8 failures to show you the way. And, yes, you're free to use or refuse either of these legs-up.

Playing NSMBW by yourself is terrific fun, and I'll return to discuss the single-player mode later. Today I'm here to sing the praises of New Super Mario Bros. Wii as a game played with others - a game that finally makes good on Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto's wish to create a Super Mario game for players of all skill levels to enjoy. While it's not strictly accurate to call it the first SMB game with multiplayer (the original Mario Bros. featured 2-player co-op), NSMBW is the first Mario game to fully implement it.

Consider for a moment how we play multiplayer games. We go to a menu screen, select Multiplayer, and the game takes us to a specially designed mode, separate from the single-player option, containing its own sub-menus and options. This mode may borrow maps or other assets from the main game, but allowances must be made for the fact that multiplayer is usually an add-on option that feels added on. Even a recent game like Trine, which offers 3-player co-op (PS3 version only), rarely exploits its multiplayer possibilities, presumably because of the exponential jump in design complexity that true multiplayer entails.

Not so in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. At any point in the game, up to 3 additional players may jump in or out, and the game never misses a beat. In fact, when a new player arrives, the game suddenly opens wide to allow 3 additional gameplay modes, not determined by a subset of rules tacked onto a separate mode, but emerging from the actions and behaviors of the players within the main game. The moment another player joins in, NSMBW enables:

  1. Simultaneous play - in which up to four players proceed through each level on their own. This mode can be especially helpful to new players who can learn by watching and imitating the actions of other players. A low-key, play to have fun mode.

  2. Co-op play - in which up to four players proceed through each level by helping each other reach otherwise unreachable levels and items. Players can cooperatively toss, carry, and bounce on each other, as well as revive each other by bursting the bubble the rescued player returns in. A blast to play, especially for non-competetive players who prefer to approach platforming as puzzle-solving.

  3. Competitive play - in which up to four players do anything within their powers to sabotage, debilitate, or otherwise defeat their opponents and reach that iconic flagpole first. This is the mode I'll bet Miyamoto snickered to himself about when he first thought of it. Super Mario Bros.: Bloodlust!

Three distinct styles of play - and others players may determine for themselves - all thoughtfully designed into the same main game. Each level packed with possibilities. Throw in variables like propeller hats, penguin suits, power-ups, and assorted other gameplay-changers, and suddenly each level plays differently, and your options for co-op/competitive play grow more exciting and more dastardly.

I've made no secret of how much I loved Little Big Planet. Playing that game from start to finish with my wife was one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had. But reflecting on the level design for that game only deepens my appreciation for the genius of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. LBP purported to offer both co-op and competitive play, but the levels that felt genuinely designed for co-op play were areas demarcated with "2X" signs on them. While these were fun to play, it's clear they weren't truly integrated into the overall design. They were essentially set-aside moments, detached from their surrounding levels, for special co-op play.

I'll note one more bit of design wisdom that suggests Nintendo thought hard about how to make NSMBW fun for everyone (and it's another tidbit that would have improved LBP, by the way). At any time during multiplayer, a player may hold down the A button and float toward the other players in a bubble. It's a useful option for vertical levels when faster players may begin to leave slower ones helpless at the bottom of the screen. But it's also a great way for a player to basically call a timeout without penalty. It's a little thing, but for some players it will mean the difference between quitting and continuing.

Bring on the turkey. And the warp pipe. And the Ice Flower. Woo Hoo!!

On the horizon


In an astonishingly short period of time, Japanese developer Level-5 has transformed itself from a small developer operating under Sony's wing to one of the premier independent game companies in the world. They've set the bar high, releasing a series of highly polished, well-crafted RPGs, including the under-appreciated Dark Chronicle, Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy, and Jeanne d'Arc.

In 2007 Level-5 released Professor Layton and the Curious Village, a departure from its RPG-exclusive focus, and a flag planted firmly in the soil of Nintendo's portable juggernaut. Between now and the end of 2010, Level-5 will release 15 more games for the DS, including Dragon Quest IX and two more Professor Layton titles. Time will tell if the developer can sustain its standard of excellence across so many releases.

Tucked in among those forthcoming releases are two games that have captured my attention, despite precious little information available about them: Fantasy Life and The Another World. I know the gap between pre-release excitement and post-release reality is often wide and sobering, but a few things about these games make me think we have good reasons to be hopeful. Level-5's involvement is one of them, but there's more.

Fantasy-Life Fantasy LIfe is a collaboration between Level-5 and Brownie Brown. For some of you, that may be all you need to know. Brownie Brown (along with HAL Laboratory) developed Mother 3, a game I consider one of the finest RPGs ever made. It also features a soundtrack by the renowned Nobuo Uematsu, composer for the Final Fantasy series.

That's an impressive pedigree, but what really excites me about Fantasy Life (and it sure ain't the generic name) is Level-5 president and lead designer Ahihiro Hino's description of the game as a "slow-life RPG." The game presents a persistent world ala Animal Crossing in which the player creates a character and then selects one of 20 lives to lead - such as guard, merchant or miner - and then goes about daily life accomplishing tasks associated with that chosen life, slowly attaining happiness.[1]

The player can live in two fantasy kingdoms; one populated by NPCs, and the other by other players living their own lives via wi-fi connection. Fantasy Life won't appeal to everyone. But to a player like me, for whom games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and The Sims hold a strange allure, the concept of a "slow-life" experience in an evolving virtual world that I carry in my pocket? Bring me that game.

The-Another-World The other forthcoming Level-5 game is potentially even more exciting than the first, and again pedigree is a factor. The Another World is a collaboration between Level-5 and the legendary animation house Studio Ghibli.

This game represents Studio Ghibli's first foray into games, and while details on the game are sketchy, we know the game will include a magic book containing various spells activated using drawings with the stylus. The game will also include an actual booklet that is meant to represent the magic book from the game and is required to play the game.[2] Early screenshots and artwork suggest Studio Ghibli's loving touch.

The November issue of Nintendo Power revealed that Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke) is composing a fully orchestrated soundtrack, which will require the game to be released on a 4-gigabit cartridge, the largest ever used for a DS game. Once again, I say bring me this game.

FYI, Gamasutra recently ran an interview with Level-5's Hino in which he discusses the keys to his company's success. It's well worth your time, if only for Hino's explanation of what he calls "boom triggers."

Here's hoping at least one of these games delivers on its promises. But, hey, why not both?

Help fly Ben to GDC


Many of you who frequent my blog know Ben Abraham. He's been a regular reader and commenter here from the beginning, and he's a familiar presence on many other game blogs. Earlier this year he founded Critical Distance in an effort to highlight some of the best writing about games from all corners of the 'net. It's an impossible task, of course, but Ben's devotion to the project and his efforts to build an inclusive aggregation site are commendable.

Ben lives in Australia where he's pursuing a Ph.D. and working toward a career in game criticism. In other words, he's crazy. So crazy, in fact, that he's decided not to let anything stop him, including his particular limited circumstances and the fact that nobody's quite sure if game criticism exists as a field of study.

My friend David Carlton and I are apparently crazy too because we've decided Ben needs to attend the upcoming Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. We're drafting him to serve as a roving reporter and generally soak up as much of the event as possible. I cover GDC each year, and it's easily the most important annual event for those of us who follow the creative side of the industry. Ben needs to be there, and we intend to help make it happen.

Gamasutra, which syndicates Critical Distance, is graciously providing a GDC 2010 all-access entry pass for Ben. So that's one big expense out of the way. David and I are working together to take care of lodging, so that leaves one more hurdle to overcome: intercontinental plane fare. And this is where I'm asking for your help.

If you'd like to support Ben and help us get him to GDC, I hope you'll consider clicking on the widget in the upper right corner of this page and contributing a few bucks. Any amount is helpful. All the money we collect will go directly to Ben’s travel expenses (except for PayPal's credit card processing fees). If you'd like to help publicize our effort by sharing this widget on your blog, just click on the ‘Copy’ tab.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Note: The ChipIn widget can be slow to update, so if you contribute but don't see it reflected immediately in the total, don't worry. It will appear soon.

A sliver of pie


Before continuing you should know this post is anecdotal and makes no claims I can quantify with data. I'm surmising a few things based on my own observations and conversations with local MW2 players.

My son is playing Modern Warfare 2, and so are a bunch of his friends. My students are playing it too - along with 9+ million other folks around the world. It's likely to be the biggest-selling game of the year.

Because they know I write about games, some of these guys (all male, aged 16-22) talk to me about their experiences and occasionally ask about my impressions. For a time last week, "When will you finish grading our midterms?" was briefly supplanted by "What did you think of Modern Warfare 2?" and I was grateful for the relief.

I've played roughly half of the solo campaign, through "Exodus" in Act II, but I've spent no time with the multiplayer mode. And that, it turns out, makes me a nutjob. Upon hearing this startling revelation one student exclaimed "What, are you insane?" Yes, apparently I am.

My conversations with these students have made me stop and reflect on the distortion field that surrounds those of us who write about games. In the circles I frequent, the "No Russian" sequence in MW2 has been a lightning rod cause célèbre, provoking angry essays, thoughtful essays, kneejerk essays, from all corners. It's the thing we're talking about. Or at least we were. These storms bring a lot of rain, but they pass quickly.

Yet here's the thing: almost nobody cares about it. MW2's campaign mode is irrelevant to most gamers. It doesn't matter. It's a bullet point.

Please don't get me wrong. Those of us who feel invested in the storytelling dimension of games should, by all means, stop and take a careful look at what Infinity Ward has wrought; I'm not scolding anyone or suggesting we're silly for diving into this big vigorous conversation. Given the nature of the provocation, how can we not discuss it?

But we're a tiny sliver of a great big pie, and I think it's worth noting how differently the vast majority of gamers perceive this game and its series. Would you be surprised to learn that the majority of the 15 players I spoke to hadn't even heard of the "No Russian" level? Would you be surprised to learn only 4 had even loaded the single-player mode a week after purchase?

These guys jumped right into multiplayer because that's what this game is all about. MW2 is a humongously popular online competitive shooter that also includes a campaign mode on the disc. The most frequent comment I heard about solo mode? "I hear it's short."

Question: if the game contained no single-player story, how many of them would buy the game anyway? Answer: All of them. "I'm sure I'll play the campaign at some point. It would be cheap of them to not include it," one of them observed. "But this is Call of Duty. It's all about the maps. The campaign is dessert. It's probably tasty, but you can skip it."

I don't play many online shooters because I'm lousy at them. But I'd love to read more solid analysis about how and why this game and its predecessor work such magic with players. We're drawn to writing about narrative games because we understand (or at least we think we do) their structures, and we have a vernacular for discussing them. And, as I mentioned before, this is a thing worth doing.

But I think the distortion field has distanced many of us from the vast majority of players and their perceptions of this game. It's like we're talking about one game, and they're playing another. I'm not sure how to close that gap, but I think it's worth considering that it exists and that we tend to ignore it.

The servant and the someday song


Today's issue of The New York Times Magazine features a piece on the indie game movement and includes interviews with Jason Rohrer, Jonathan Blow, Jenova Chen, and Clint Hocking - names familiar to most of you. It's a welcome story because it reveals a world of games that most people know little to nothing about...especially folks who read the NYT Magazine.

A quote from Rohrer encapsulates the article's thesis: "A realization is dawning that games can be much more than what they are now. They even have the potential to be meaningful in deep, fundamental ways.” The article goes on to describe how games like Passage, Braid, Flower, and others offer an alternative to massive AAA titles and can be seen as artistic expressions of their creators.

I'm grateful for the Times article, but sometimes I fear our endless preoccupation with making the case for video games is self-defeating. It feels defensive and, at its worst, produces a kind of micro-culture obsession with analysis: a 24/7 bloggo-Twitter tilling and re-tilling of the same small plot of dirt. In this self-absorbed environment, each new game's worth is measured by its ability to move the needle on emergent narrative, artistic expression, genre refinement...or whatever criterion we're applying this week to prove games matter to people already convinced.

Put another way, I wonder how many game enthusiasts can dance on the head of a pin?

Yet, making the case for games and pointing at their unrealized potential remain among the primary missions of this blog. I've written scads of posts (and plenty of tweets) on those subjects, and I regularly evangelize about games to my colleagues in the arts and academia.

My pitch goes something like: "You think you know about games, but you don't. Let me show you this one. Now, let's think about what's happening here and imagine the possibilities for games yet to come." In other words, I do what Rohrer, Hocking, and Blow have done at GDC and elsewhere. I take a snapshot of games now, and then I sing the someday song.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about that someday song and wondering how I can contribute to advancing games and our cultural understanding of them, while steering clear of the tired assertions, the insular navel gazing, and the plaintive cross-media comparisons. How to keep a steady focus on the games we have now, but stay mindful that we're witnessing an evolution (maybe even a revolution) unfold around us? I keep coming back to the critic.

Critics differ from reviewers because they serve a different master. The reviewer serves the consumer, empowering him with information he needs to spend his money wisely - a valuable function that I don't believe is less important than the critic's. Some people don't like Crispy Gamer's "Buy It, Try It, or Fry It," rating system, but I think it sends a clear and transparent message to readers who want to know whether or not a game is worth their hard-earned cash. I'll bet Mastrapa, Chick, and Co. grind hard on games that fall in the two margins. Easier to just assign an 80 and move on the next game.

But the critic is a servant to the art and, in many cases, the artist. Her sole concern is the work itself, and her ability to thoughtfully engage and respond to that work is a measure of her value as a critic. A good critic can see, can synthesize, can contextualize. A careful, astute critic can apply an unflinching perspective to work so mediated with preconceptions, marketing, and other baggage that few people can see it clearly. A worthy critic is a lover. A skeptical, I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it lover; but a lover nonetheless. A good critic hopes.

Games desperately need such critics, and I'm happy to report they're out there, selflessly doing their thing. Some you've probably heard of; others you haven't. Later this week I'll highlight a few and explain how and why I believe they're doing such valuable work. I hope you'll stay tuned.

It's an RPG thing


So here I am, an elf mage in another high fantasy RPG. This time it's Bioware's Dragon Age, filling me with  Baldur's Gate déjà vu and reminding me yet again of the coalescent predictability of the genre. I say that like it's a bad thing.

It is and it isn't. Criticizing Dragon Age's formulaic plot, malleable though it may be, is like shooting fish in a barrel. The demons from the spirit realm, the shadow lord arch-villain, the descent to the netherworld, the errands, the team gathering, the mages, rogues, and warriors - it's all well-worn territory. Dragon Age elevates it with richer characters, more interesting sidequests, and a dialogue system that can lead to genuinely surprising outcomes; but a revolutionary RPG this is not.

Dragon Age explores well-defined mythic territory, so complaining about its formulaic nature is like whining about all the singing in opera. No, my problem with Dragon Age isn't about archetypes or storytelling tropes. It's about the all-too familiar mechanical constraints that have worn out their welcome. As games like Dragon Age grow more ambitious, offering role-playing that feels increasingly flexible and responsive, the rigid niggly stuff seems more out of place than ever.

Example: I enter a refugee village full of lost orphans and hungry, displaced men and women. They desperately need food, shelter, and supplies. Meanwhile, all around the village I see glowing crates full of goodies that apparently none of these refugees can see. Why? Because those crates are how game enables me to replenish my implausibly large backpack with items I need. A homeless refugee may be paces away from an unlocked stash of valuable stuff, but that stuff is for me and only me. And once I've taken it, I can't give it to anybody except my party pals. It's an RPG thing.

Show me a villager deadset on an idea, and I'll show you a villager who's mind can be changed in a moment. A simple "Don't you think you should reconsider this?" from me is enough to provoke a full 180. Why? Because I've been grinding my way through Persuasion boosts for hours. My ability to persuade has almost nothing to do with the power of my ideas or convincing counter-arguments. Who needs 'em? I'm persuasive because I've got mad stats. It's an RPG thing.

Let's say I do something awful in the game. Chances are I'll lose status points with one of my party members, but not to worry. I can always boost my status by gifting an item I find in a crate or on the body of one of my victims. No matter how objectionable my actions or how vociferously my companions object, redemption is just around the corner with a little trinket largesse. Scruples? Who needs 'em? Why? Because the game needs a mechanism for allowing me to boost my status and hold onto my party members. Mechanics trump character integrity. It's an RPG thing.

Applying a plausibility standard to games is a ridiculous idea, of course. Games require big imaginative leaps from us, and that's half the fun. One reason the spattered blood effects in Dragon Age often seem laughably absurd is that the game seems to inexplicably strive for a burst of 'realism' amidst a sea of outrageously unrealistic action and characters. I'm not hoping for a more realistic Dragon Age; I'm wishing for a less incongruous one.

As RPGs evolve - particularly western RPGs - the problem is less about plausibility and more about leftover mechanical constraints from older games. Repeatedly bumping into the incongruities I've mentioned (and these are merely a sampling) feels less necessary than it once did. We're supposed to overlook them, but I'm beginning to wonder why we should.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 26

Brathwaite   Sharp

Had your fill of the "Are Games Art?" debate? This edition of the podcast, featuring an interview with veteran game designer Brenda Brathwaite and art historian John Sharp, takes the conversation in a different and, I hope, more useful direction. Focusing on Brenda's remarkably poignant game Train, we discuss the intersection of art and game design and consider how a designer's personal vision and game design skills dovetail in the conception and development of a new game.

We also discuss John's views on the coming Ludic Age, and both guests share their thoughts on educating young designers for careers in the game industry. These and a variety of other topics - including an exciting conference announcement - in this edition of the Brainy Gamer podcast.

Note: If you're unfamiliar with Train, I highly recommend reading Ian Bogost's thoughtful account of it at Gamasutra. I'm linking to the section of his article that deals directly with Train, but I hope you'll read the entire piece. C'mon, it's Bogost. You know it'll be interesting. :-)

  • 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.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

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Long live the author


Manifestos are fascinating documents. In the arts, they exist as snapshots of transitional cultural moments, offering insight into the ideas and motives of the artists who render them. Marinetti (Futurism), Breton (Surrealism), Zavattini (Neo-Realism), and Bazin (New Wave), were passionate advocates who urgently pointed the way forward, outlining a philosophical framework they believed would revitalize painting, sculpture, and film.

Manifestos typically require targets, so they often employ a persuasive strategy of invalidating the models they reject. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, the Dada Manifesto, and The Cluetrain Manifesto differ wildly in their individual goals, but each call to action presumes the prevailing system is unjust, corrupt or irrelevant.

I write this as Clint Hocking wraps up his barnstorming Click Nothing Tour, spreading his message of change to game design students in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Savannah, and Atlanta. I don't know if Clint considers his message a manifesto, but I believe it essentially functions as one. He generously posts the texts and slides of his talks on his website, so I encourage you to check them out and decide for yourself. Here's the abstract for his most recent CN Tour talk:

The games of today unsurprisingly strive to mimic the linear, authored structures of previous generations of media largely because gamers and game developers have grown up in a world where those media are culturally dominant. That is changing. As our media become more richly interactive and as our experience of the world becomes increasingly fragmented and parallelized, a new media culture is disintegrating the old. Games of the future will reflect this cultural shift by themselves becoming more fragmentary, more parallelized, and less focused on rich simulation and traditional notions of immersion.

Hocking isn't the first or only person to talk about these things. As far as I can tell, Doug Church got the ball rolling with his  "Abdicating Authorship," talk delivered at GDC in 2000. Randy Smith has referred to authored narratives as "dead," and Jonathan Blow and Steve Gaynor, among others, have also written eloquently on the subject of storytelling and authorship in games.

I've listened to Clint Hocking speak at the last two GDCs, and I've interviewed him on my podcast. It's fair to say I've learned more about game design from him than anyone else - not mechanics or level design, but the fundamental symbiosis of game/player. His vision for the future of games excites me, and I'm convinced by his assertion that the true potential of interactivity lies in emergent player-driven narrative.

But I'm not ready to concede that authored linear narratives are the 2nd-class citizens of game design. My recent experience with Uncharted 2 suggests that there's plenty of life left in such games if - and it's a very big if - the storytelling and the game's delivery systems for that storytelling elevate the player's experience beyond the standard stuff we've seen from video games.

In other words, the problem with linear authored games isn't a question of core design, but a question of quality. If you want to make a game that relies on '30s serial action adventure movie tropes, then you must to do that extraordinarily well - with plenty of style, panache, and Hollywood production values to carry you over all the obvious pitfalls. You need genuinely smart (not just smart...for a video game), well-written and performed dialogue, and you need gameplay that feels responsive, fun, and connected to the story.

If all this sounds terribly formulaic, that's because it is. Formula can be the paint-by-numbers template that makes your project look wholly derivative, or it can be the sturdy container that holds something special. You'd be hard-pressed to identify a single genuinely original aspect of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca. Dozens of movies have told similar stories with similar characters. What elevates Casablanca is the way each of its elements: cinematography, music, performances, screenplay - so clearly surpasses the pedestrian work of other similar films.

The Casablanca parallel works on another level. Casablanca is a thematically simple film. It could have been a more ambitious meditation on pacifism or patriotism, but it's neither of those. It's a romance with action and intrigue set in an exotic locale with charismatic characters. Structurally, it's a linear narrative with an extended flashback sequence. I'm well aware of the apples and oranges objections when we compare video games to films; but in this case I think the parallel is apt. Uncharted 2 is a successful game because it doesn't try to box outside its weight. It's a ripping adventure that makes good on its wisely limited ambitions.

It's also a helluva lot of fun, and that's no small thing.

One more quick point about authored narratives. I hope we never lose sight of the fact that we humans love stories. But more than that, we love to be told stories. I'm thrilled by the power of video games to put the player in the driver's seat, but Uncharted 2 proves it's possible to do that while still appealing to our love of a good story well told. It functions beautifully as both story and storyteller. It's quite possible to see this distinguishing feature of games as no less compelling than their ability to immerse us in an emergent player-driven narrative.

Above photo: Amy Hennig, Creative Director of Uncharted 2.

Uncharted 2: On pace


This post is part of a short series devoted to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. You can find the first two posts here and here.

We often talk about pacing in games, but I'm not sure we're all talking about the same thing. What exactly do we mean when we say a game is well or poorly paced?

Before I began writing about games, my understanding of pace grew out of my experience as a stage director. In the theater, pacing has mostly to do with tempo and rhythm; speeding up and slowing down. Good actors have an acute awareness of pacing and its variability from night to night with different audiences. Comedy, in particular, relies on carefully tuned pacing. Sometimes a gag fails simply because the audience didn't have time to process the setup. Slow it down a bit, and you'll get the laugh. Feel the laugh wave crest, then push the next bit forward. Advance too soon, and you'll kill the laugh; too late and you're milking it. Pace. Rhythm. Timing.

Lots of reviewers have praised Uncharted 2 for its pacing - and I believe it richly deserves such praise - but what does this mean, exactly? I think Uncharted 2's success in this regard can be traced to the same factors I described above, but the interactive nature of games adds a layer of complexity to the formula that's worth exploring.

The most obvious expression of pacing in Uncharted 2 is its elegant shifting from one style of gameplay to another. Just as the player begins to tire of climbing, swinging, and jumping - along comes a combat sequence or a dialogue scene or an environmental puzzle. In its most frenetic moments, the game throws a cocktail of gameplay options at you all at the same time.


Consider Chapter 12: "A Train to Catch." Up to this point the player has grown accustomed to shooting or climbing his way out of trouble, but here you find yourself unarmed and surrounded by bad guys. The preceding chapter concluded with a frantic escape. Now you and Drake must catch your breath, take your time, and find a stealthy route out. You can take cover behind a barrier and wait for a guard to come nearby so you can disable him and grab his gun. Or you can attempt to scurry unseen from cover to cover and avoid combat.

Either way, you've got time to deliberate and act. When you're ready to kick the action into high gear, start shooting and the pace rapidly accelerates. Before you reach your goal, the game will throw running, precision jumping and rope swinging at you, as well as a cutscene between Elena and Nate that cleverly explains (by doing rather than telling) why Elena is the woman Nate will choose at the end.

Here is where the interactive nature of games most clearly distinguishes itself from theater and film. The player retains a certain degree of control over the pace of the game. If I want to press forward and engage the enemy, I can play a fast and furious version of Uncharted 2. But if I need to collect my thoughts - or if I simply want to challenge myself with a tougher option - the game provides me with many opportunities to stop and assess the situation before pressing on. When I make my decision, the game resumes control of the pacing until I complete that section, then hands it back to me.

Such dynamic control of pacing - a give and take between me and the game - has no analogue in theater or film. You might say the audience has some measure of input in live performance, but certainly not to this extent or effect. To a great degree, Naughty Dog's successful management of pacing in this game is a cooperative arrangement in which my preferences and needs as a player mesh with my avatar's within a system that makes all this both fun and meaningful. Lots of games let the player decide what to do, but few games connect their storytelling to this dynamic system so satisfyingly well.

Pacing in Uncharted 2 is about more than gameplay shifts. It's also about tone and environment. Chapter 16: "Where am I?" contains almost no gameplay at all, and the player often has no control over Nate. This chapter introduces Tenzin, a character who speaks no English, and his Nepalese village. These arrive at precisely the right moment.

In terms of pacing, this chapter functions like an oasis, offering the player a chance to relax and explore without looking over his shoulder for an ambush. You can kick a soccer ball with a couple of children; you can listen to other children giggling at you behind a wall. You can watch a man chop wood. Nothing here advances the game or its plot, but I believe this section is pivotal to the player's experience because it feels so right; so necessary. Soon this contemplative moment will fade and these peaceful villagers' lives will be threatened, and your time here will make all that matter even more.

Pacing in games is an intricate balancing act, and Uncharted 2 manages it better than any narrative game I can think of. In my concluding post I'll discuss the game's marriage of cinematic and gameplay elements, both of which also contribute to the game's pacing. As always, your comments and observations are most welcome.