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March 2010

The Cave Story story


Once you put eyes, arms, and legs on a bar of soap, it's not really a bar of soap anymore, is it? --Pixel

Eleven years ago a Japanese college student named Daisuke Amaya began working on a game he called Dōkutsu Monogatari, or Cave Story. At the time he was studying computer programming, but had never designed a game. "One of my dorm-mates knew how to make games, so I started learning from him."[1]

Amaya (better known as 'Pixel') spent the next five years drawing characters, building levels, refining gameplay and controls, creating a story, and writing dialogue and music. In 2004 he released Cave Story as freeware on PC, and ports of the game soon appeared for Linux, Mac, AmigaOS, Xbox, PSP and GP2X. Within a year, Aeon Genesis translated the game into English, word-of-mouth spread, rapturous reviews appeared, a popular tribute site emerged, and Cave Story became one of the most successful indie games ever made.

Fast forward to 2010, and Cave Story has appeared on WiiWare, developed by Nicalis in collaboration with Pixel. The new version contains a new English localization, enhanced graphics, new music, and additional play modes. Nicalis wisely retained the original music and visuals, and both are available as menu options. You can even mix the two, choosing the updated graphics, but keeping the old music, for example.

So why all the fuss about Cave Story - a non-linear retro run-and-gun platformer with shades of Wonder Boy, Metroid, Gunstar Heroes, and Mega Man

Because Cave Story is a stellar example of masterful 2D side-scrolling design. Because it controls like a dream. Because its story puts more notable classics like Super Metroid's to shame. Because Cave Story trusts the player to construct meaning from his experience rather than handing it to you on a platter. Because it's insidiously addictive fun.

And because Pixel made it. I suppose it's possible to separate creator from creation, and maybe there's objective value to maintaining a critical distance between art and artist. But in the case of Pixel and Cave Story, why should we? The Cave Story story is inextricably linked to the Pixel story, and I say that adds a certain richness to the experience of playing the game. Is Cave Story a terrific game regardless of the backstory of its creation? Absolutely. But, for me at least, my appreciation for the game is enriched by my awareness of its meager roots and its humble creator.

Pixel describes himself as an 'office worker' who rides his bike to work every day. He's a software developer, but spends none of his professional time on games. "At home, I help with household duties and child care. Any personal software development of mine takes place primarily late at night."[2]

Married and raising a family, Pixel can't devote a lot of time to designing games, which he describes as his 'hobby', so he must work slowly and methodically. "...There aren’t many resources I can put in to my hobbies, but with that little resource I am slowly making an RPG. Even that barely moves forward, so it may be impossible to create a Cave Story that surpasses its predecessor."[3]

Given the success of Cave Story, one might have expected a sequel to appear in the six years since its release, but Pixel appears to be in no hurry. "There is an order of priorities for me, that's: Family > Myself > Work > Hobbies." When asked what kind of game he might create with an unlimited budget and a team of developers, Pixel appears disabled by the thought. "I have a habit of thinking what can be done within limitations, so nothing comes to mind if you give me an unlimited budget."[4]

I can't help thinking artists in general would do well to adopt a similar mindset. As my grad school teacher - renowned director Liviu Ciulei - liked to say, "Don't tell me you want freedom. You wouldn't know what to do with it if you had it." Boundaries inspire artists more than they restrict.

I can't help rooting for a guy like Pixel. If you own a Wii and have 12 bucks to spare, I encourage you to buy the game and reward him for his efforts. Indie games predate Cave Story, but there's no question Pixel's game is a pivotal title in the history of the movement. If you prefer to play Cave Story on PC (or peruse other ports), you can download a free copy here.

I'll return in my next post to discuss Cave Story more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you have thoughts about the game or its creator, I hope you'll share them.

Which realism?

Mlb10theshow   Earlweaverbaseball

My latest monthly column for GameSetWatch focuses on realism in sports sims, and I compare two games released 23 years apart: MLB 10: The Show and Earl Weaver Baseball. Here's a snippet:

The holy grail of graphical sports sims is an experience that feels realistic, and we routinely measure these games by their ability to convey that experience. If you'd like to test that contention, peruse the reviews of the latest high water mark in graphical sports sims, MLB 10: The Show, and count how many times reviewers deploy "realistic" in praise of the game.

To understand the nature of MLB 10 as a sports sims, it's useful to look back at EA's Earl Weaver game as a kind of swan song in sports game design. Its sequel, EWB 2, employed a 3D camera that radically altered the player's perspective, and the series shifted from simulating the experience of playing baseball to the experience of watching it on television. For the graphical sports sims to follow, there was no turning back.

You can read the whole essay here.

Would you like a girl or a boy toy?

Happy-meal This one isn't about video games, but I think it's relevant.

I went to McDonalds a week ago with my 2-year-old daughter Zoe. Before you scold me for endangering my child's health and nutrition with junk food, let me say two things. First, if you don't have kids, you may not fully grasp how powerfully the McDonalds PR machine worms its way into the minds of our children. With no provocation whatsoever from me or my wife, our daughter has managed (via daycare, we're sure) to learn all about McDonalds, and the mere mention of going there sends her into fits of manic joy. 

Second, making your kid happy when you're exhausted at the end of the day and you haven't had time to shop for food...well, it's a seductive thing. Plus, you can substitute apple slices for french fries. So, see, it's healthy. Healthier. Okay, look, it's fast and easy, she squeals when she sees Ronald, and we do it once in a blue moon. :-/

So I'm at the counter, I order Zoe a Happy Meal, and the woman says to me "Would you like a girl or a boy toy?" I didn't know we had a choice. I look at Zoe who's wearing a hat and jacket, and I realize this woman can't make out Zoe's sex, so I ask her "What's the difference?" She tells me that girls get an iCarly Happy Meal and boys get a Star Wars Happy Meal. I ask Zoe, "Would you like Star Wars or iCarly?" She stares at me clueless and then says "Carly," and I immediately kick myself for listing it second. Zoe always chooses the last item offered if she doesn't know what you're talking about.

When we opened the box we found an iCarly "Lip Gloss Phone," a purple and silver flip phone that opens to a makeup mirror and container of lip gloss. A visit to McDonalds' HappyMeal website lists the other iCarly toys we might have received:

"Animate Me"
A pink plastic toy with a digital smiley face. 

"Tote Bag"
A small pink, purple, and orange purse with the cast of iCarly on the front.

"Sticker Locker"
 A sticker dispenser in the shape of a locker and a roll of iCarly cast stickers.

"Customizable Dog"
A plastic dog you can write on and erase. 

A pink and green case containing a pad of paper and a pencil.

 A pink and purple bracelet with with changeable inserts featuring the iCarly cast.

"Spencer's Magic Meatball"
Ask it a question, push a button, and it responds Yes, No, or Ask again later.

You can see all the current Happy Meal girl toys here.

I could go on about why gendering toys reinforces all sorts of limiting assumptions and behaviors, but I have other fish to fry in this post. Suffice it to say my daughter doesn't need McDonalds to tell her which toys she ought to play with.

After this experience I decided to try a little experiment. For each of the next 5 days I purchased a Happy Meal from the drive-thru at my two local McDonalds, alternating between restaurants, and always driving a car with a child's car-seat in the back.

Each time the attendant asked if I wanted a girl or boy toy, I answered, "Give me whatever is the most fun." 5 times out of 5 I received a Star Wars toy. Four women (all different employees I'm fairly sure) and one man all responded to my request in the same way. 

It didn't occur to me until the last day to follow up and ask why each chose the Star Wars toy. On that occasion, when the attendant handed me the bag, I asked "Which toy did you give me?" She replied "The Star Wars." When I asked why, she responded, "They're more fun to play with." "Even for a girl?" I asked. "Unless she likes iCarly, yeah. For sure."

The next day Zoe accompanied me inside McDonalds, but this time she wore no hat and a pink shirt. We ordered from the same employee I spoke to the day before, and we received a Happy Meal for girls containing the iCarly tote bag.

In case you're interested, the Happy Meal boy toy collection consists of 4 Star Wars character keychains (Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, Darth Vader, and R2-D2) that open to contain a corresponding peel-off tattoo; and 4 plastic models of spaceships (X-Wing, Jedi Starfighter, Millennium Falcon, and Republic Gunship) each with an insertable key enabling it to be launched. 

You can see all the Happy Meal boy toys here.

I also recommend checking out the TV spots for each:
Happy Meal for Girls Commercial
Happy Meal for Boys Commercial

I don't claim my simple little experiment proves anything conclusive, but for me and my wife, the "Happy Meal" delivers more irony than joy.

Mocap mountain


Generally speaking, you'll find two kinds of note-takers at GDC. The journalist/blogger jotting down notes for articles to be written later, and the industry professional looking for design/dev insights that may be useful on a project down the road.

Most sessions at GDC appeal to one scribe or the other, but a few select presentations fill the room with every kind of scribbler, furiously mining a session for nuggets of gold. Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig and Josh Scherr's talk, "Behind the Scenes: Uncharted 2's Unique Cinematic Production Process" was easily the most scribbled session I attended at this year's event. Given my keen interest in acting and storytelling, I'm fairly certain I was Scribbloid Prime. (Okay, I took notes on my laptop, but pencil and paper jotting sounds so much more romantic.)

Amy Hennig (Creative Director) began the session with a question: "How do we nurture, capture, preserve, and enhance the authenticity of the performance?" She and Scherr (Cinematics Animation Lead) spent the next 60 minutes addressing that question.

"From day one we designed Uncharted 2 as a story-driven game," Hennig noted. Narrative games must  have unified storytelling, which means actors, performances, and story sequences can't be retrofitted or implemented as an afterthought. As development occurs, the team must be flexible enough to respond to changes that emerge through rehearsal and spontaneous ideas from actors.

"We allow actors to impact their character's personality," Hennig stated, and she showed photographs of the lead actors matched with the characters they played, each remarkably faithful. "Our mocap and VO actors are one and the same," and as proof she noted that 90% of audio used in the game came from the mocap recordings sessions. "In Drake's Fortune we used mocap audio as scratch; in Uncharted 2 we used it for real." Audio was captured via lavalier mics attached to the actors' foreheads.

Naughty Dog may be the only major studio to completely abandon storyboarding. "We've discovered storyboards are useless to our process," said Hennig. "We diagram scenes as top-down schematics, register set pieces on a stage, and map our scene layout to it." Mocap scenes where characters don't interact with terrain tend to feel disconnected, so actors are always put in physical situations that mirror their in-game situation.

Hennig showed photographs of mocked-up settings using apple boxes, make-shift platforms, and lots of gaffers tape. Actors are able to be physical with the set, which makes a big difference. "If an environment exists in the game, we duplicate its terrain on the recording set," Hennig explained, and she showed a video of Nolan North stumbling through an arrangement of boxes in his mocap suit, which later became an injured Drake moving through a train.

Hennig stressed the importance of working with actors from the beginning of the design process. "Write, craft, shoot, repeat." This process, repeated every few weeks, enables actors to feel more invested in their characters, and it means writers and animators grow more familiar with the actors, write better dialogue for them, and animate them more convincingly. This also means actors must memorize their lines, which is highly unusual in video game VO work.

"Acting is reacting," observed Hennig, so isolating actors from each other is a bad idea. Naughty Dog employs an experienced stage director to work creatively with the actors. Rehearsals always happen the day before recording. Table readings result in rewrites, blocking and rehearsal provoke more rewrites, and on-camera improv can produce unscripted moments like the "I'm last year's model" scene between Chloe, Elena, and Nate, which Hennig describes as "largely created by the actors."

Not an instant win
Lead Animator Josh Scherr picked up where Hennig left off, observing that "Mocap is not an instant win." Animating mocap is far more labor-intensive than most people realize. "We needed to produce 15 seconds of animation per animator, per week. That's a lot."

Uncharted 2 required 90 minutes of animation, 25 of which were animated in the last 10 weeks before gold master. It was a painful crunch that Scherr and others at Naughty Dog are reviewing in hopes of avoiding such a situation next time. In the end, outsourcing helped, and the studio worked in tandem with Sony San Diego who provided more animators. Near the end of development, a total of 37 animators were working on Uncharted 2.

Scherr offered several pointers for animating mocap performances. 1) Get the coverage you need. Every take is recorded on 4 cameras: 1 master for coverage and 3 closeup cameras. 2) Tone down physical actions. Actors wearing mocap gear tend to get VERY BIG. 3) Keep prop interactions simple. 4) Don't capture fingers or props. They're easier to handle with keyframing. 5) Don't do crazy stunts. Those will all be keyframed later anyway. 6) Avoid prop handoffs.

Naughty Dog made a pivotal decision not to capture facial animations. "We explored this, but didn't like the results," Scherr reported. The team chose keyframing instead, and Scherr believes it was the right decision. Emotional authenticity of performance is paramount. If a physical animation is a little off, people may notice. If a facial animation is off, everyone notices.

"A talented team of artists and animators are what make mocap data look like realistic performance," observed Scherr, and this involves mixing and matching mocap and audio takes to stitch together the best composite results. "We love our actors, but that doesn't mean we shy away from improving or even replacing what they've produced via mocap. Use the tools you've got."

Finally, Hennig offered a few thoughts on Naughty Dog's unorthodox methods. "Our approach is less structured because it gives us better results." Such an approach won't work for every project, but it suits what the studio is trying to accomplish with the Uncharted games. Hennig encouraged developers of narrative games to insist on authentic performances. "Get to know your actors and rehearse with them. Make cutscenes that people don't want to skip."

And FYI, in case you were wondering, Sully's signature cigar was a red Sharpie.

The seeds


What we create touches the hearts and spirits of people and moves them. This gives us big responsibilities. I imagine the faces of my wife, friends, and complete strangers. More and more I think about the face of my son. These are who we make games for. Inspire them.  -Yoshio Sakamoto

Here's a highly generalized assertion based on impressions from the three most recent San Francisco GDCs. My stab at profundity is probably more than blind guesswork, but less than wisdom from industry experience.

It seems to me that Japanese designers have a particular knack for discussing the personal origins of their work - the seeds of inspiration, if you will - but almost no inclination to discuss the nuts and bolts. Western designers, on the other hand, are incredibly adept at lifting the hood on their work and explaining precisely how all the parts function; but they rarely connect us to the passionate impulses from which their ideas flow.

Exceptions exist, of course. Brenda Brathwaite's presentation on Train last week was easily the most personal of the conference; and Tsuchida and Yajima's talk on automatic sound triggering in FFXIII was mostly technical.

But more often than not, I think my thesis holds. Yoshio Sakamoto's (dir. Metroid series) presentation on designing for different audiences at this year's event reminded me of others I've attended by notable Japanese designers like Suda, Ueda, Kojima, and Miyamoto. Compared to their western contemporaries (Wright, Meier, Hocking, Pagliarulo), these Japanese designers seem to prefer articulating personal impulses and tracing genesis ideas.

At a conference like GDC, this approach can frustrate some who come looking for practical tools or concrete takeaways. On several occasions I've been advised to avoid presentations by Japanese developers in the Design Track of GDC. "They never say anything," cautioned one GDC veteran. "They're here mostly for PR, and they stick to a rigid script."

If someone had asked for my impressions after the first 30 minutes of his talk, I might have agreed. He presented a history of the Metroid series, showed a promotional trailer for the upcoming Metroid: Other M, and generally paid tribute to the genius of his boss Satoru Iwata.

But then his remarks turned in a more revealing direction. He discussed his need to explore both the serious and comic sides of his personality, aware (painfully, he hinted) that Iwata thinks of him "only as someone with a comical side" because of his work producing the WarioWare games. 

Sakamoto explained that he's fascinated by horror and traced his respect for the genre to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, and he cited Argento's Deep Red as deeply inspirational. "Before Deep Red, horror always left me feeling empty. Argento arrested me." 

Sakamoto studied Argento's work and concluded that his primary tools for engaging his audience were mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast. "My early design work was an homage to Argento's work. I have continued this through my career, and Other M is no exception." But soon after launching the Metroid series, Sakamoto realized that he needed to find his own aesthetic sensibility. 

"I'm not a movie fanatic. I probably don't watch any more movies than the average person," Sakamoto stated. "However, films have opened my eyes to techniques that can bring a story to life. I'm not obssessed with them, but they have inpired me." Sakamoto began looking beyond horror movies to non-Hollywood films like Besson's Léon: The Professional and John Woo' s A Better Tomorrow series.

Sakamoto loves making people laugh, and he began to see a connection between the dark films he admires and his penchant for comedy. "I'm not a comedian, but I enjoy helping people have a good time. I"m actually quite meticulous about it." 

Reflecting on personal experiences and discoveries - which he has recorded for many years in a journal - Sakamoto realized that, for him, the line separating comedy from horror is quite thin, and both rely on the same core elements: mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast. Tomodachi Collection, which Sakamoto describes as more comedically subversive than people credit it, is the outcome of this personal exploration.

Regardless of whether he's working on a Metroid or a WarioWare game, Sakamoto's creative process is essentially the same for each. "As long as one is open to the possibility of new expriences, you can move people in a variety of ways."

"My spirit has been moved by interactions with the world. These experiences create indivisual images that stay with us. It's our mission to give our images shapes that can be conveyed to other people. I had to find my own way at Nintendo. Similar to the way a child is given a new toy and becomes engrossed in it." 

Sakamoto found his own way, and through that process came to better know himself. His account of that journey may or may not inspire other designers, but I found it captivating.

What color is your hero?

Avatar movie image (5) 

GDC provides a face-to-face environment for "the video game conversation." The incredible breadth of that conversation is one of main attractions of the conference, and it's a big reason I enjoy attending. If you hang around in the hallway between sessions, you're likely to hear a dissection of task-based multithreading in one ear and a heated debate on the merits of trophies and achievements in the other. It's dizzying, enlightening, and overwhelming all at once.

One conversation found its way to GDC '10, having already percolated in the blogosphere and elsewhere for years. Jamin Brophy-Warren broached it last year in a "Game Critics Rant" session when he called for more diversity in games (following Heather Chaplin's rant aimed at developers mired in "guy culture"). Warren revisited and expanded the topic this year by hosting a panel discussion called "What Color is Your Hero?" featuring Manveer Heir (Raven Software), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), and Mia Consalvo (MIT).

Consalvo led off with some startling data on depictions of characters in games. 150 games released in '05-'06, across platforms and genres, were studied to record the appearance of every character seen by a player. A total of 8,572 characters were coded, out of which only 10.45% were female. White characters accounted for 85% of the primary characters appearing in those games. Not a single Hispanic or Native American character played a primary role in any of the games studied. Black characters depicted were overwhelmingly athletes and gang bangers.

Consalvo also cited research on children suggesting that characters represented in media play an important role in the construction of self-image and images of others. Additional research indicates that exposures to stereotypes negatively impact how kids perceive minorities.

Manveer Heir stressed that the issue isn't about political correctness. "It's about creating new experiences for players." Depicting characters from a wide ethnic and racial spectrum adds value to the player's experience. "The white male power fantasy is played out," he observed. Game developers are always looking for something new and different for their games, but they routinely miss an opportunity staring them in the face.

Leigh Alexander noted that the industry has relied on fitness, casual, and Facebook games to attract new players, but shouldn't limit its focus there. "We are not homogenous, so why should our games be?" Consalvo added that a higher percentage of African Americans play video games than do Caucasions. Issues of race and ethnicity aside, "a lot of us are tired of spaceships, dragons, and military situations," Alexander observed.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of diversity in the industry, whose employment demographics mirror those of its on-screen characters. "We don't have enough people in the industry representing a variety of walks of life," Heir stated. "Broadly speaking, we tell our own stories. We write what we know. He stressed the need for outreach programs that encourage minority students to enter the industry. "The insularity of this industry is our single biggest problem. If, in 10 years, we're the same as we are now, we're fucked."

Consalvo argued that hiring minority developers is a good idea, but we shouldn't assume artists can't also write outside their own experience. "It's ludicrous to think men can't write about women." The arts have demonstrated otherwise for centuries. "Don't get trapped by 'write what you know.'" Heir agreed. "The people working in this industry are some of the smartest people in the world. We can do this. It's not harder to solve than other complex problems we've faced and overcome."

Alexander noted that Resident Evil 5 had a chilling effect on some developers. "People are afraid of doing it wrong and getting the backlash." Developers face a major economic incentive to avoid risk, so they stick to what works. Ironically, Alexander added, many of these source materials draw from fantasy and sci-fi genres that metaphorically targeted race and other social issues far more ambitiously than their video game descendents today. 

Brophy-Warren wondered why the industry seems willing "to leave so much money on the table." Why is there no Tyler Perry or Spike Lee capitalizing on an opportunity to reach an audience that's already there? Why, he asked, in a game like Heavy Rain - set in Philadelphia with a 50% black population - are the only two characters of color "Mad Jack" and a kindly old groundskeeper? It's a glaring and nonsensical disconnect.

Heir cited Prey as an example of a game that tried to do better, featuring a Native American hero and telling a story that reflected on his identity. "It took another step and added a 'spirit-walking' mechanic that could have simply been re-skinned from other games, but used it in a way that suited the narrative." The hero was conflicted about his heritage, and the game addressed that in ways that felt more than superficial.

Alexander recalled growing up with a half-black father and Jewish mother and experiencing "a profound sense of alienation." "Your story matters," she asserted. "It's part of you." Games miss these storytelling opportunities. "Palette swaps aren't the answer. It's not just about visuals." Mass Effect enables player choice of sex and visuals, and this is a good thing; but it's not enough. Dragon Age plays with issues of prejudice in its depiction of Elves, and this also useful. But games should also be willing to address thorny issues head-on, without couching them in 'safer' fantasy and sci-fi settings.

Brophy-Warren contends the problem is more complicated than many of us realize. He cited the cartoonist Kyle Baker, who has lamented the difficulty of drawing black characters. "The stereotype trap is huge," and it can intimidate artists who want to depict minority characters without resorting to offensive visual tropes. "Why are there no black Little Sisters in Bioshock?" he asked. Is it a visual design issue of not being able to see them clearly in dark environments?

Heir countered that the problem wasn't technical, suggesting that "they wouldn't be as cute." You need to create empathy, and you need to do it fast. Alexander wondered if mistreating minority characters might be seen as crossing a certain line. Would Bioshock be considered offensive if it made little black girls victims? Consalvo added that the image of a sympathetic white on-screen character is a structural issue that dates back to Hollywood cinematography, which was designed to light white actors' faces. 

Heir noted that the video game industry faces structural issues of its own. "Gender creates a huge asset pipeline nightmare. Switching race is much easier than building new features and animations." Resistance to incorporating more female characters can sometimes be about resource allocation. Consalvo added that indie developers face far fewer constraints in this regard than big studios, "but they're not doing any better." This, according to Consalvo, suggests the absence of diversity in games is less about resources and more about unexamined self-imposed constraints.

Alexander cautioned that the conversation about characters and storytelling in games doesn't appeal to everyone in the industry. "When we play games, we want to talk about what they mean and the experience we derive from them." But many developers are "dubious about the value of 'story'" and prefer to focus purely on game design. "We don't really have these designers' attention when we discuss diversity in games."

"We say 'try something new,' but developers say 'why should we?'" Alexander cited Dora the Explorer as an enormously successful example of a character with broad pop culture appeal. "There is a massive audience outside your field of vision," Alexander observed. "Why be insular in a medium that's interactive?"

Heir agreed. "We can't listen to focus testers or we'll keep making the same game over and over. Consumers want more of the same because they don't know any better. It's our job to give them what they don't yet know they want. Trust yourself as an artist and designer."

Dial me up some emotion

Composer1-lg I walked into a GDC panel discussion called "The Musical Recipe of Emotion" with some trepidation. Video game music often strikes me as derivative, paint-by-numbers composition. Fanfare with horns equals victory; tremolo strings equal fear; slow tempo in minor key equals sadness. Etc.

So I was pleasantly surprised - thrilled, actually - to hear four gifted composers discuss their process for scoring games and their strategies for avoiding an 'emotion template' approach to composition. 

Tom Salta (GRAW, Red Steel) hosted a fascinating discussion with Laura Karpman (Untold Legends, Everquest), Marty O'Donnell (Halo series), Paul Lipson (Pyramid Producion - Bioshock 2Iron Man 2), and Chance Thomas (Avatar game, Lord of the Rings Online), focused on creating music that deliberately evokes emotion.

Salta outlined the paradox that every composer faces. Music is a language we understand. It conveys meaning through melody, textures, arrangement, and harmony, and we translate certain combinations of those elements in specific ways (e.g. screeching strings equal 'danger'). How can a composer use this common language without sinking into formula or cliche?

Salta tries to mix or morph familiar musical tropes in ways that alter or enrich their meaning. Juxtaposing a flavor of music with a situation that would seem contradictory can have a powerful effect, and he cited Quentin Tarantino's penchant for doing this in his films as inspirational. Salta played a sequence he composed for H.A.W.X in which he rearranged a familiar fanfare to suggest a more ambiguous Pyrrhic victory. "The notes are the words we understand, but the feeling they convey is delivered through an unorthodox arrangement that counters what the words seem to say."

Laura Karpman candidly noted that she sometimes feels responsible for elevating pedestrian, and sometimes just plain awful, visual material into something that feels genuine and expressive. She showed a sequence of shots from the TV miniseries Taken featuring actors who were obviously extras, painfully lacking even rudimentary acting skills. Without her score supporting them, the scene was laughably bad; but with music added - strings playing appogglaturas; bold brass ala Boris Gudunov; woodwind filigrees and a slowly building bass - the scene succeeded. Not quite a silk purse, but close enough to be respectable.

This thread wound its way through each of the presentations. The material these composers support with their music is often paper thin, and they frequently lack a real sense of the whole project. Cue sheets that ask for "fear", "triumph", or other general emotions arrive with little context, and the composer rarely has a chance to play the game in advance or even see whole portions of it. Top-line composers like Marty McDonnell may be invited into the design process from the early stages, but this is hardly typical. McDonnell designs all the audio in the Halo games, not just the music, so his creative presence at the drawing board is natural. Few composers for games play that role.

I'm drawn to artists willing to lift the hood and show you their process, and these composers did just that. Chance Thomas took us through his compositional ideas for scoring a chaotic dogfight in Avatar. 16th against 8th triplets establish a rhythm with minor tonalities, major flourishes, key changes, and passing chords conveying a sense of off-balance speed and unpredictable action.

Paul Lipson explained his approach to conveying "tremolo-free fear" via banging, uneven rhythms, stacked staccato horns, high sustained stings and harmonics, layered textures, and antiphonal melodies - with a tiny hint of woodwinds to suggest a glimmer of hope from the hero's POV.

O'Donnell discussed his surprisingly effective (and subversive, in my view) fusion of dark, brooding film noir-esque music for Halo: ODST. Simple jazz harmonies and slow tempos were intended to evoke a "This is not the Halo I'm used to" response from players. Interestingly, he even suggests a bit of sexual tension via blues piano riffs in the locker room-style scene among the soldiers early in the game. O'Donnell isn't sure if players are aware of this subtle bit of musical commentary, and that's perfectly fine with him.

Finally, Karpman suggested that artists who score games think more in terms of composers than emotions. She encouraged her peers to expand their awareness beyond "film music." Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff, Strauss - they all have huge range. "Learn from them. Then differentiate. Re-orchestrate." We all have similar frames of references, she noted. Expanding that frame is "hugely important" because it expands our vocabulary and makes us more versatile composers.

I brake for GDC

GDCbug_2010_200x200 I'm taking a few days off to catch my breath and steel myself for the sublime madness of GDC. I'll be posting from the event, hoping to bring you stories that won't replicate all the fine coverage you'll find elsewhere.

It's impossible to attend all the sessions I'm curious about, so I'm building a schedule that allows me to take in as many as I can, while still leaving time to explore and chat with people I meet. If you plan to attend, look me up. I'll be the older guy with the curly hair and the wide-eyed goofy look on his face. 

Stay tuned for more on GDC '10. I hope you enjoy.

Step up


IGN is reporting that Six Days in Fallujah, the first game to focus directly on the war in Iraq, is finished and ready for release. The controversial title by developer Atomic Games was announced by Konami last April and cancelled three weeks later following criticism from a variety of groups and organizations.[1] Atomic Games is a division of Destineer Games which, among other things, makes training tools for the US military.

Atomic doesn't say so directly, but it appears they're looking for a publisher willing to step up and publish the game. I say it's time for a publisher to do just that. It's time for someone with vision, conviction, and cash to unequivocally lay claim to creative autonomy and freedom of expression as fundamental imperatives for games. It's time for a publisher to publicly assert, with money as its marker, that games can resonate culturally only if they're free to explore unexamined ideas and challenge our comfort zones.

Plenty of people have argued on behalf of Six Days in Fallujah, citing a double standard separating games from film and television. Why, they say, should games be prevented from going where films like Battle for Haditha or The Hurt Locker have gone? 

This is a useful observation, but it relies on the increasingly threadbare argument that games deserve to occupy the same culturally respectable space as other media. Claiming it doesn't make it true. It will never be widely seen as true until games finally elbow their way to a place at the table. No one is holding that place for us. No invitation is forthcoming. You gain your place at the table by forcing your way in and then making yourself essential to the conversation that ensues. We aren't there yet because we haven't demanded to be there.

Six Days in Fallujah is that elbow to ribs. I don't know if it's a good or a bad game. I haven't played it. What I know is that the developer interviewed 70 people with intimate experience in Iraq, including returning Marines, Iraqi civilians, enemy insurgents, war historians, and senior military officials.[2] I know they hope to convey through the player's experience an emotional and psychological arc that reflects something truthful about what happened in that battle.

The game may or may not deliver on its ambitions, but success or failure are beside the point in this case. Konami didn't cancel the game because it fell short of its design goals. Six Days in Fallujah was canceled because Konami decided it had more to lose than gain by publishing it. It bowed to pressure from people who made (mostly) baseless or uninformed claims about the game.

Several phrases recur throughout the criticisms leveled at Six Days in Fallujah - a game, by the way, that not a single critic has played. The most common among these are: "exploiting," "trivializing," "glorifying," and "too soon."

I don't mean to diminish or overlook the suffering that many of the game's detractors have experienced. I understand their objections stem from real, heartfelt concerns. But these are the very places artists must go. There is no safe way to explore these painful issues. In fact, the safe way is the surest way to oversimplification; the surest way to telling lies.

The fact that I charge an audience money to see the art I create doesn't mean I'm "capitalizing" on a painful event that caused great suffering. What fuels an artist's fire may also be the cause of human conflict or desperation. The artist is drawn to these places. He has no choice. His freedom to explore the world using the tools of his art must be assiduously protected, encouraged, and, yes, even funded.

The charge that Six Days in Fallujah trivializes or glorifies horrific events will surprise no one. It stems from an assumption that games lack the capacity for any other response to violence. Games have done little to challenge that assumption, and no amount of blog posts or GDC roundtables will convince anyone otherwise. 

Six Days in Fallujah is an opportunity to begin tearing down that wall. If we believe games can be, or do, or say more, then we must produce those games and push through the inevitable resistance to them. If Six Days fails, we learn what can be learned from that failure, and we build the next game better.

What's needed now is an enlightened publisher willing to facilitate that process, clearly articulate the stakes, and take the inevitable heat. Maybe it also means losing money. I don't know if such a publisher exists, but for the sake of dangerous games, I hope so.

The Heavy Rain conversation


Since posting my thoughts on Heavy Rain, I've been reading other views on the game - some affirming, others opposing mine. More than once I've seen Heavy Rain described as a love-it or hate-it affair, but such a simple summary doesn't reflect the broad spectrum of responses this game has received, even among the commenters here. 

It's hard to ignore so many reasoned viewpoints, so I've begun playing Heavy Rain again to see if approaching the game with a different mindset will alter my experience. I don't re-play games often, but in this case it seems like a thing worth doing. We'll see what happens. [Update: PSN issues have me spooked. Looks like I'll hold off firing up my 'fat' PS3 for awhile).

The conversation that's sprung up around Heavy Rain is the most interesting I've seen since Braid was the game in our crosshairs. It invites ruminations on storytelling, agency, mechanics, and genre (among other things); and it provokes proclamations ranging from "...the future of video games may be closer than we thought"[1] to "...ham-fisted schlock and downright broken storytelling."[2]

Given the range of responses to Heavy Rain, I thought it might be useful to account for some of the most salient ones. I've already had my say, so I won't rehash those issues here. But plenty of people see the game differently - or see other problems I didn't see - and here's a sampling of what they're saying.

Note: I'm summarizing perspectives shared by a variety of people, so for simplicity's sake I won't attribute them to individuals. I encourage you to peruse the comments on my previous post where thoughtful folks like Unanbangkay, CBZ, Nat, JPLC, Louis F, Nels and many others share their individual takes.

  • Heavy Rain's emphasis on controller inputs is an effective expression of agency. The player is forced to respond, often in real-time, with little opportunity for reflection. This conveys a real sense of urgency in high-pressure situations that branching dialogue trees (e.g. Mass Effect) lack. 
  • David Cage wants us to identify with the everyday physical lives of his characters, so he gives us control over trivial physical actions. The problem is that reproducing an everyday movement with a thumbstick gesture is nothing like doing it for real. So, in the end, we're being asked to substitute one abstraction for another. Twirling a thumbstick to open a refrigerator is no less artificial or arbitrary than pressing a button to open it.
  • Heavy Rain forces the player to absolutely focus in critical situations. When a cop is bearing down on you asking questions Ethan should know the answers to, the barrier separating player from character is dissolved. You can't shoot your way out or hit the Pause button. You must reflect on what you know, what you want, and what you fear. You're in the spotlight sweating.
  • The game fails because it refuses to use the language of the medium. Heavy Rain attempts to translate a film into a video game by incorporating interactivity, but that media marriage doesn't add value. Consequently, it's neither a good film nor a good game. It's a regressive hybrid.
  • The game has the power to make you feel afraid/nervous/tearful/anxious/guilty. Dismissing Heavy Rain as a glorified point-and-click adventure grossly understates its impact on an open-minded player. Get on board and take the ride the game wants to give you.
  • Heavy Rain illustrates 'the uncanny valley of player agency.' The more control a player is given over trivial things, "the more unrealistic, jarring and infuriating the arbitrary barriers become.[3] Simulating everyday reality in a game is an interesting exercise, especially when we're accustomed to playing epic shooters. But after the novelty wears off, what's the point?
  • Why must every major game be measured by its ability to move the ball down the field? If Heavy Rain doesn't usher in a new era of games, does that mean it's a failure? Is there no room for a game like Heavy Rain? Does it threaten the existence of other games? Heavy Rain tries something new and different. It may not fully succeed, but few big experiments do.
  • If you're looking for well-written interactive drama full of meaningful high-level choices, play a great text adventure game.

My experience with Heavy Rain wasn't especially positive, but I'm willing to give it another try. In the meantime, I'm grateful for the vigorous conversation surrounding the game. Maybe that's where the real lasting impact of Heavy Rain will be found.