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February 2011

Come with me to GDC

ZoomH4 I'm leaving for GDC soon, and this year I've decided to try something different. In the past, I've written about sessions I've attended (and I'll continue that this year), but those essays hardly account for the broader experience of being at GDC and taking in all the hectic goodness it has to offer. 

So this year I'm bringing my trusty Zoom H4 recorder, and I'll use it to capture the the sounds of GDC, as well as the people who make the event such an unforgettable experience. I'm not permitted to record formal sessions, but I'll cover those as posts.

If you've listened to my podcasts, you'll find these audio diaries much more informal and off-the-cuff. My goal is to convey a sense of what it's like to be at GDC from a single attendee's perspective, so I'll hit the record button whenever I find something worth sharing. Then I'll piece them together with minimal editing, clean up the audio a bit, and post them.

GDC is the largest annual gathering of game developers in the world. If you care about games and the people who make them, this is the place to be. Sadly, few non-developers have the opportunity to attend. I'm one of those lucky few and grateful for the chance. I hope my audio diaries will give you a glimpse of what it's like to attend GDC, from arriving in San Francisco to collapsing in a heap back home on Saturday.

Thanks for reading and listening!

GDC for curious minds


A few days ago I sat down to plan my schedule for next week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Then my head exploded. This year's event features 474 unique sessions, keynotes, roundtables, and tutorials separated into various tracks (e.g. Game Design, Programming, Visual Arts, etc.) 

With such a mind-boggling array of possibilities and a short amount of time to to squeeze them all in, which events shouldn't be missed?

I'm not a game developer. I'm a critic and a teacher, so I attend GDC to learn as much as I can about how games are built and the people who build them. I attend GDC with a curious mind, eager to deepen my understanding of games as art; games as the result of creative team-based development; games as an industry.

If you happen to be like me - or if you're not attending GDC, but keen to know what's on offer this year - I've culled the massive schedule of events and extracted a list of sessions that look especially interesting to me. It's still an unwieldy list, and it's impossible to attend them all, but it's definitely more manageable than the monster list.

I've divided my list into three thematic parts: 1) How We Did It. 2) Big Ideas. 3) Where Do We Go From Here? You'll find some crossover sessions on my list - some "big ideas" also address where games are headed next - but in general I think these three categories separate the sessions effectively. So here goes. I hope you'll find this useful.


Classic Game Postmortem: PRINCE OF PERSIA
SPEAKER/S: Jordan Mechner 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 10:30-11:30 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Decades before it was a Hollywood film with millions of dollars and hundreds of workers supporting its production, PRINCE OF PERSIA was mostly the project of a single man. Jordan Mechner, who also created KARATEKA and later went on to work in the film industry, rotoscoped the game's fluid and realistic character animations, designed its difficult puzzles, crafted its thrilling sword-fighting combat, and penned its captivating story. He will present a postmortem discussion on the landmark cinematic platformer that would go on to influence not just a whole series of 3D PRINCE OF PERSIA games, but also titles like FLASHBACK, TOMBRAIDER, and LIMBO.

DEAD SPACE 2: Musical Postmortem
SPEAKER/S: Jason Graves (Jason Graves Music, Inc.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 10:30-11:30 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Composer Jason Graves will highlight the challenges and opportunities that presented themselves while scoring DEAD SPACE 2. The sequel builds on the same music as sound design approach of the original game, while extending and altering it for further dramatic effect. This panel will discuss living up to the hype of the original, how the score mirrors the plot and action of the sequel, and detail the many different orchestral recording sessions that occurred over the space of twelve months.

SPEAKER/S: Tom Chilton (Blizzard Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 1:30- 2:30 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.DESCRIPTION: In creating the CATACLYSM expansion for WORLD OF WARCRAFT, we endeavored to re-create the existing core game world in addition to providing new content for fans of the game. We felt the time had come to rejuvenate aging parts of the game world for existing, former, and new players while at the same time preserving and even enhancing what made the game world special from the start. Many difficult decisions had to be made while going down this path, so we'd like to share our approach to navigating those challenges in terms of design philosophy and execution.

Beyond Horror: Art Directing DEAD SPACE 2
SPEAKER/S: Ian Milham (Electronic Arts Redwood Shores) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: Art directors and game artists today are faced with an every more hit-driven market, where big budgets demand mass appeal. In this lecture, Ian Milham, Art Director on the DEAD SPACE franchise, will illustrate how the franchise's art was evolved to deliver broader appeal and higher production values, and address the lessons learned from the first title.

Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in HEAVY RAIN
SPEAKER/S: David Cage (Quantic Dream) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:30- 5:30 Room 3007, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: In creating HEAVY RAIN, we tried to build an experience entirely based on interactive storytelling, emotional involvement and contextual actions. This new approach forced us to reconsider many traditional paradigms of video games often considered as set in stone. Through the analysis of concrete examples from HEAVY RAIN, we will show how key scenes were conceived, what emotional impact was expected and how the game used visuals, narrative and game play to achieve emotional involvement. Through comparisons with traditional game design, we will try to discover why video games in general struggle to tell compelling stories and what solutions can be found.

Designing LIMBO's Puzzles
SPEAKER/S: Jeppe Carlsen (Playdead) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:30- 5:30 Room 308, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: LIMBO is a physics based puzzle platformer. The game has a minimalistic control scheme, but even though minimalism is in focus, the game is gameplay focused and very challenging. How these challenges came to be, is the focus of this presentation. Using concrete gameplay, Jeppe presents LIMBO's puzzle design principles and the creative, iterative process of going from early puzzle idea to a polished puzzle in the shipped game. Following the introduction into the principles and development process, Jeppe fires up LIMBO's custom made editor for a live, carefully commented creation of a rudimentary puzzle. Hopefully the demonstration will convince some in the audience that the tools and choices we made, which enabled us to prototype and test gameplay ideas in a short loop, was instrumental to the creative process and, consequently, the end result.

SPEAKER/S: Eric Chahi (Ubisoft) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 9:00-10:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Released across more than a dozen platforms since its 1991 debut, OUT OF THIS WORLD (a.k.a. ANOTHER WORLD) has long been a favorite among critics and sophisticated gamers alike for its cinematic cutscenes and atmospheric presentation. The platformer's distinctive visual style, minimal but effective use of music and sound effects, and ability to convey its story and emotions without any words captured the imaginations of countless players, as well as those of future luminaries like Fumito Ueda (ICO) and Hideo Kojima (METAL GEAR SOLID). OUT OF THIS WORLDs creator Eric Chahi will reveal his process developing the innovative game and building its memorable scenes.

Interactive Music Scoring Methods for MASS EFFECT 2
SPEAKER/S: Jack Wall (Wall of Sound, Inc.) and Brian DiDomenico (Wall of Sound) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 9:00-10:00 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Making music for video games involves more than simply composing and producing great music. It has to follow the story and the action in a way where it's not in the way. The award-winning music from the 2nd installment of the groundbreaking MASS EFFECT series was conceived and composed with interactivity in mind from the music design phase to the final note written for the game. This session explores the design, development and implementation of the interactive score as well as the pitfalls and successes in doing so. With over 750 unique assets, particular focus is paid to communicating as a team and asset management.

Biofeedback in Gameplay: How Valve Measures Physiology to Enhance Gaming Experience
SPEAKER/S: Mike Ambinder (Valve Software) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 3002, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: This presentation discusses how Valve is making use of biofeedback - the measurement, display, analysis, modification, manipulation, and response of physiological signals - to both explore new avenues of gameplay and to improve in-house playtesting processes. Current control schemes - mouse and keyboard, gamepad, gestural remote - rely on the transformation of physical manipulations - button presses, hand and arm motions, etc. - into onscreen representations of player intent. These schemes are limited in the sense of providing input about a player's desired actions in-game while providing little information about player sentiment. The addition of physiological signals allows for a new dimension of transformation - using estimates of a players emotional state to tailor a more immersive, dynamic, and calibrated game experience; these signals enable the inclusion of a heretofore ignored aspect of player experience into a viable component of gameplay. 

Classic Game Postmortem - DOOM
SPEAKER/S: Tom Hall (Loot Drop) and John Romero (Loot Drop) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Few games can match the ubiquity and legacy of DOOM, the seminal first-person shooter that ushered in thousands of mods, clones, and successors. Nearly every significant FPS, from RESISTANCE to HALF-LIFE, CALL OF DUTY to HALO, owes its success in part to the Id Software game. Programmer, Game Designer, Level Designer and DOOM II final boss, John Romero, will deliver a postmortem on the game showing never-before-seen material, memorializing its immersive but nerve-wracking 3D environments, networked multiplayer deathmatches, Satanic imagery and themes, Barney WADs, exploding barrels, and BFG 9000. Romero was a co-founder of id Software, among other companies, and also worked on other significant shooters like WOLFENSTEIN 3D and QUAKE.

The Environment is the Orchestra: Soundscape Composition in LIMBO
SPEAKER/S: Martin Stig Andersen (Playdead) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: The session highlights the potentials of electroacoustic music and soundscape composition in the context of games. By dismissing the traditional dividing line between music and sound effects, a new range of possibilities in audiovisual design emerges. Putting Playdeads LIMBO on display, composer and sound designer Martin Stig Andersen demonstrates how the games award winning audio was created, focusing on how sound effects and ambient noises were adapted to carry out functions traditionally assigned to conventional music. The session also features examples of core integration between game and audio design, eventually giving way to a kind of game-play music.

Classic Game Postmortem - MANIAC MANSION
SPEAKER/S: Ron Gilbert (Double Fine Productions) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Cherished by adventure game fans and reviled by hamsters everywhere, MANIAC MANSION was the first adventure game LucasArts developed on its SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) platform -- the beloved scripting engine powering and enabling ports for subsequent classics like SAM & MAX, LOOM, FULL THROTTLE, DAY OF THE TENTACLE, and the MONKEY ISLAND series. Ron Gilbert, famous for his contributions at LucasArts and now working at Double Fine Productions, will talk about his work on MANIAC MANSION, touching on the game's multiple endings, point-and-click interface and it's oddball cast of characters.

The Story of CAVE STORY
SPEAKER/S: Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya (Independent) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: In his first-ever public speech and Western appearance regarding his much-beloved 2D indie title CAVE STORY, Japanese 'dojin' game developer Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya will discuss his creative process in making the PC freeware title that debuted in 2004. The evocative retro-themed game, which took 5 years to complete, has been praised by many, localized into English, and is an Independent Games Festival finalist this year in its enhanced WiiWare and DSiWare version. As a 2D platform adventure with genuine emotion, depth, and an intriguing story, the title has been praised for its attention to detail and endearing characters. In this postmortem of both the original title and the versions that followed, Amaya will talk about what went both right and wrong in creating a game that turned out completely unlike what he initially had in mind, and what all game creators can learn from his inspiring story of bedroom programmer whose acclaimed work reached millions.

ONE FALLS FOR EACH OF US: The Prototyping of Tragedy
SPEAKER/S: Brenda Brathwaite (Lolapps) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 4:30- 5:30 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Incorporating 50,000 wooden figurines, each painted by hand, Brenda Brathwaites latest game is ONE FALLS FOR EACH of US. It is the fourth game in the Mechanic is the Message series, takes up an entire room, is intentionally inconvenient to set up and chronicles the experience of the Native Americans as they walked and died upon the Trail of Tears. Like the other games in the series, Brathwaite uses the medium of the game mechanic much like traditional artists use paint to capture and express difficult events. It is a form of historical system design which provokes both player and designer to look and interact more deeply than they otherwise might. Influenced by the works of Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra, Marcel Duchamp and Gerhard Richter, Brathwaites works push games in directions not yet considered. From the games initial conception through to its current state, Brathwaite discusses the inspirations for ONE FALLS FOR EACH of US and the series, recent iterations and expands upon the prototyping of tragedy and offers direction on how our own real world experiences can serve as needed catharsis and inspiration in any type of game.


Dynamics: The State of the Art
SPEAKER/S: Clint Hocking (LucasArts) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 10:30-11:30 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: In 2009, Chris Hecker fielded the question, 'How do games mean?' Crucially distinct from the question of what a specific game might mean, this question lies at the heart of what games are and why they matter as art, entertainment and culture. Obviously, games mean via their dynamics. But in what ways do dynamics yield meaning? What is the difference between meaning embedded in mechanics and true dynamical meaning? What is the variable breadth of meaning in a dynamic system or system of systems? What is the role of the author and of the interactor, and how do they share in the generation of meaning? How do specific games, from GO to MINECRAFT to RED DEAD REDEMPTION generate meaning?What specifically do these successful games mean, and to what extent is their ability to generate meaning a component of their success? This talk dives deeply into these questions in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a rigorous understanding of dynamics.

GDC Microtalks 2011: One Hour, Ten Speakers, Hundreds of Fun New Ideas
SPEAKER/S: Jamin Brophy-Warren (Kill Screen Magazine), Jason Rohrer (Independent), Colleen Macklin (Parsons the New School for Design), Naomi Clark (Fresh Planet), Brandon Boyer (Independent Games Festival), David Jaffe (Eat Sleep Play), Michael John (Electronic Arts), Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog), Brenda Brathwaite (Lolapps) and Asi Burak (Games for Change) DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 12:00- 1:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.DESCRIPTION: The fast-moving talk format with fans all around the world returns to GDC for another hour of lightning-fast lectures, visual punch and innovative ideas. The concept is simple: MC Richard Lemarchand invites nine experts from different game design-related fields to give a short talk on a subject related to this years theme, 'Say How You Play' - a discussion of new contexts for play and games. Each speaker gets 20 slides, each of which will be displayed for exactly 16 seconds before automatically advancing, giving the speaker five minutes and 20 seconds to deliver their fresh game design perspectives.

Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime
SPEAKER/S: Frank Lantz (Area/Code/Zynga) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 1:30- 2:30 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: This session is an in-depth exploration of two important games, Go, the ancient abstract strategy game, and Poker, the gambling card game. Go and Poker are epic, world-changing games, they have spanned generations, and absorbed entire lifetimes of passionate study and play. They change how we see the world and have affected the course of human history. Mixing personal experience, historical exposition, technical analysis, and philosophical reflection, this talk will seek to understand how a handful of black and white stones and a deck of cards can demonstrate the immense scope and sublime power of games.

Seven Ways a Video Game Can Be Moral
SPEAKER/S: Richard Rouse III (Ubisoft Montreal) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 3007, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: What does it mean for a story to be moral? Many developers see the honest exploration of morality as part of the great potential of video games. Though games such as Ultima IV, Fallout 3, Alpha Centauri and The Sims have dipped their toes into moral waters, other media have been exploring morality for centuries and have done so much more effectively than games. This fast-paced follow-up to the popular GDC 2010 talk, Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry, examines moral storytelling from a variety of mediums to see what structures and techniques have worked. We then look at how these techniques can be transformed to work with gameplay, using interactivity to deliver moral storytelling in an entirely new way.

The Failure Workshop
SPEAKER/S: Brad Wardell (Stardock), Chris Hecker (definition six, inc.), Kyle Gabler (2D Boy), Matthew Wegner (Flashbang Studios), Kyle Gray (Tomorrow Corporation) and George Fan (PopCap Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: A series of rapid-fire presentations by successful developers on their less-than-successful projects, the Failure Workshop focuses on the glorious failures we all have, and the successful games that emerged as a result. Each speaker will have less than 12 minutes to showcase a game or feature that has never seen the light of day and explain: 1) why they thought it was a good idea 2) why it failed3) what they gained from the whole experience

From MYTH to HALO: Marty O'Donnell's Adventures with Adaptive Audio, Creative Collaboration and Geese!
SPEAKER/S: Marty O'Donnell (Bungie) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: What is my definition of Adaptive Audio and how has it evolved over the past 15 years? What is my approach to composing music for games? What is my approach to implementing music in games? What are my thoughts about the purpose of collaborating with other creative people when writing music or directing audio for a game? What are my thoughts about the future of the music business in relation to game publishing? What are geese doing in the title of this talk? I'll attempt to answer all these questions but no one should expect complete clarity.

In Days of Yore
SPEAKER/S: Chris Crawford (Storytron) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: The earliest days of computer games were times of technological swashbuckling, shoestring budgets, amateur designers, amateurish products, and wild experimentation. Just getting things to move around on the screen was a huge technical challenge. Nobody knew what the hell they were doing, but everybody knew that we were creating a new medium and a new industry. Come back to the Wild West days of game design, when games were created by individuals and sold in zip-loc bags. You'll be amazed by the differences -- and stunned by the similarities.

No Freaking Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back
SPEAKER/S: Chris Hecker (definition six, inc.), Eric Zimmerman (Independent), Trip Hawkins (Digital Chocolate), Brenda Brathwaite (Lolapps), Ian Bogost (The Georgia Institute of Technology), Brian Reynolds (Zynga), Jason Della Rocca (Perimeter Partners), Steve Meretzky (Playdom) and Scott Jon Siegel (Playdom) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 12:00- 1:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: For the last six years at the GDC rant session, game developers have made themselves heard. They have trashed their publishers, shocked players and fans, and expressed heartfelt passion about the industry that we all love to hate. Last year, we heard from developers that had recently lost their companies and their jobs. This year, its time for the underclass to get even. At the GDC 2011 rant session, we have invited the people who everyone is blaming with ruining the industry: social network game developers. At least since last years GDC, when social game talks were met with boos and catcalls, they have been taking your abuse. At the rant session, well give social game developers a chance to strike back. What exactly does burn them up? They may well rail against common criticsms of social games, but THEY choose the topics of their rants, so be prepared for the unexpected. Cutting through the clutter of polite industry chit-chat, the rant session takes on the issues that matter to developers in a no-holds-barred format. Fasten your seat belts and prepare for strong opinions from some of the game industry's most distinguished and dissatisfied game developers. The invited panelists from scarred veteran to hothead youngster - will be given free reign. You have been warned. 

The Secret (Art) History of Games
SPEAKER/S: John Sharp (Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 1:30- 2:30 Room 304, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: What connects Renaissance parlor games, 18th century French swing sets, Go, Spacewar!, pinball, Chess and Wolfenstein 3D? This session looks at the often obscured connections and relationships between art and games as forms of expression and experience, and the ways the two reflect something substantial about their time and place. Sometimes, games were praised, and other times, they were despised. But in all cases, a common thread is the degree to which the games were woven into the culture.

An Apology for Roger Ebert
SPEAKER/S: Brian Moriarty (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 2:00- 3:00 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: In November of 2005, internationally renowned film critic Roger Ebert unleashed a firestorm of criticism with a blog entry claiming that the nature of the medium [video games] prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. 4+ years and thousands of angry comments later, Ebert wearily admits that he was a fool for ever mentioning video games in the first place, but will not retract his opinion that games can never be art. Who is this Roger Ebert guy? Is he right? Does his opinion matter? Why should we even care whether or not games are art? Just what is this art thing, anyway? Professor Brian Moriarty, 29-year gaming veteran and renowned lecturer and teacher, was the first (in a 1998 GDC address) to hail computer games as the defining art form of the 21st century. He has pondered long and hard on these questions, and finds himself reluctantly siding with ... Ebert! In this ill-advised lecture, he foolishly dares to enter the belly of the beast, offering a passionate defense of the beleaguered film critic at the game industrys most prestigious event. He will reveal his own eye-opening definition of art, explain why current game designs dont aspire to it, and argue that its both practically and spiritually essential to pursue it anyway. Has the Professor finally lost his mind? Will you bring tomatoes, or rotten eggs? Prepare to have your mind bent and your soul seared in one of the Professors legendary presentations, his first GDC appearance since 2002.


Designing Games for the "43-Year-Old Woman"
SPEAKER/S: Chris Trottier (Zynga) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 308, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: Chris will pull from her experience working on games like The Sims and FarmVille to explore what factors make a game take the leap from approachable to mass market phenomenon. This session is not about all women or female game developers. It is about your cousin's wife who's obsessed with collecting FarmVille animals or Sims custom content: what her day is like, when and why she turns to entertainment, and how you can best engage her when she does.

Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?
SPEAKER/S: Kent Hudson (LucasArts) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:30- 5:30 Room 3006, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Do you wish your actions as a player mattered more in the game worlds you explore? Are you tired of the game industry copying Hollywood and spending more and more money on elaborate cutscenes for linear stories? Do you want to explore ways in which games can harness interactivity and take advantage of what's unique to our medium? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this talk is for you! It will describe values and techniques with which you can put the player in charge of his or her own narrative.

Keep it Together: Encouraging Cooperative Behavior During Co-op Play
SPEAKER/S: Patrick Redding (Ubisoft Toronto) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 9:00-10:00 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: Cooperative games pose a unique challenge for designers. How do they deliver coherent, meaningful play while permitting two or more players to take independent action in the same space? Ubisoft game director Patrick Redding (Splinter Cell: Conviction) reviews a range of practical tools for encouraging co-op players to work together. Drawing on a variety of recent games, including the lessons of Convictions own co-op campaign, he looks at how players seek out meaningful cooperation as a basis for social interaction. Redding examines level design, game dynamics, presentation and feedback, communication and metagame strategies for enabling collective action.

No Explanation Necessary: Minimizing Exposition in Games
SPEAKER/S: Jeremy Bernstein (Electric Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 130, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Exposition is a critical component of a game's narrative experience, giving the player the background and context necessary to follow what's going on. But exposition can also suck. Hard. This talk examines why exposition is necessary, discusses why and how we tend to overdo it, and provides concrete techniques for minimizing and streamlining exposition so that it benefits the game instead of slowing it down. These approaches are not just writing-centric, but can also be applied at multiple levels and all stages of game production. Case studies involve Halo and Dead Space 2. Don't press 'A' to skip this one!

Experimental Gameplay Sessions
SPEAKER/S: Michael Brough (Independent), Nicolai Troshinsky (Independent), Mihir Sheth (University of Southern California), Chris Bell (Carnegie Mellon ETC), Agustin Perez Fernandez (Independent), Frank Lantz (Area/Code/Zynga), Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany), Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog), Daniel Benmergui (Independent), Jonathan Blow (Number None, Inc.), Andy Schatz (Pocketwatch Games), Asher Vollmer (University of Southern California), Jason Rohrer (Independent) and Hanford Lemoore (Independent) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 1:30- 3:30 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: The 9th annual Experimental Gameplay Sessions invites developers of experimental gameplay to demonstrate and discuss their games and prototypes. In a series of short presentations, this session focuses on the exploration of new frontiers in game design. Independent games, academic projects, and AAA mainstream games that break new ground are all represented.

Industry Lessons Learned and Applying Them to the Road Ahead
SPEAKER/S: Cliff Bleszinski (Epic Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 1:30- 2:30 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Cliff Bleszinski has not done a public lecture in years and has a lot to say. First, the seminar will focus on how understanding marketing and PR are not only important to a game's promotion but to its actual design and implementation. The talk then continues on into talking about branding - not only an IP but also characters and even and one's self as a developer. The lecture will continue to then discuss the importance of story and context, the fact that a genre can live or die based on its camera, as well as fun tips such as how to use the seven deadly sins to make a better game. Finally, the current state of the industry and the future will also be discussed with Bleszinski's thoughts on AAA gaming, social gaming, and the connected future, as well as general observations about the manner in which the gaming industry is run.

The Player-Shaped Hole: Allowing for Both Narrative and Story
SPEAKER/S: Richard Dansky (Red Storm) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Game developers want to tell compelling stories. Game players want to experience them. Those would seem to be congruent desires. And yet, the conflict between narrative intent and player freedom can produce almost insurmountable narrative challenges. This session is intended as a look at that conflict, the underlying assumptions and misapprehensions that produce it, and ways that it can be reduced, avoided or eliminated - all by remembering the need for the player-shaped hole in the middle of the narrative.

Strategy Games: The Next Move
SPEAKER/S: Ian Fischer (Robot Entertainment), Soren Johnson (EA2D), Dustin Browder (Blizzard Entertainment), Jon Shafer (Stardock) and Tom Chick (Quarter to Three) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Strategy games have one of the longest traditions within the industry, including two of last year's biggest games, STARCRAFT II AND CIVILIZATION V. In what direction is the genre heading? What are some of most important, and possibly overlooked, gameplay innovations of the last few years? How has the growth on online, persistent play affected the way strategy games are developed? Has the rapidly expanding mainstream audience changed how strategy games are targeted, or is the genre at risk of turning into a ghetto? As the market moves towards free-to-play, micro-transaction-based gaming, how will strategy gaming adapt while maintaining fairness of play? Is there still room for traditional, boxed strategy games?

Putting a newsgame to the test


In the opening chapter of their book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, co-authors Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer describe the game Cutthroat Capitalism and its origins as a 2009 Wired magazine piece. Cutthroat Capitalism, the print article, presented an economic analysis of Somali pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden, with colorful pages full of infographics, charts, and diagrams (many drawn in 8-bit pixel art style) illustrating the economic dimension of ransom piracy in the region.

Cutthroat Capitalism, the game, puts the player at the helm of a pirate vessel, "staked with $50,000 from local tribal leaders and other investors. Your job is to guide your pirate crew through raids in and around the Gulf of Aden, attack and capture a ship, and successfully negotiate a ransom." The game, say Newsgames' authors, "effectively simulates capture and negotiation, synthesizing the principles of the [Wired article] into an experience rather than a description."

Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer cite Cutthroat Capitalism as a primary example of Newsgame's thesis: a well designed game can enable players to better understand complex events by experiencing them in abstraction. Playing Cutthroat Capitalism interactively exposes players to a complex system at work inside the news story.

Newsgamescover More importantly for the future of journalism, it integrates "a new and different media artifact" into a broader journalistic workflow that enriches the experience for the reader. The print and digital versions of the story complement and enrich each other.

Newsgames posits that good journalism must "embrace new modes of thinking about news" that include such interactive resources. Newsgames won't save the world or resuscitate traditional journalism, but the authors believe "they do represent a real and viable opportunity to help citizens form beliefs and make decisions."

As a teacher, I'm intrigued by Newsgames' argument, but how achievable are the potential outcomes its authors claim? Can a newsgame truly augment traditional journalism in meaningful ways? I decided to put one to the test and see for myself.

I tasked a group of eight students with the following assignment:

Consult four media sources (one newspaper, one website or blog, one print magazine, and one television network) and learn as much as you can about Somali pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden region since 2007. Try your best to understand the who/what/where/when/why of this ongoing story as reported by the sources you choose. This isn't a research or term paper assignment. Your goal should be to acquaint yourself with the story in order to discuss it thoughtfully and make informed judgements about it with your classmates.

The students relied on a range of news outlets (New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, Fox News, Mother Jones, Reuters, The National Review, Wikipedia, the Huffington Post - among others). From the outset, they tried to understand the story from multiple perspectives. They collected published news stories, interviews with government officials and Somali pirates, op-ed pieces, infographic time-lines, and other relevant materials.

When we met to discuss what they had learned, it became clear that they were eager to talk about the issue and prepared to think about it carefully. We enjoyed a fruitful conversation, with some students expressing a degree compassion for the pirates, while others advocated a military crackdown. In particular, the discussion opened their eyes to Somalia's plight as a war-ravaged failed state - among the poorest and most violent in the world - and a story that, sadly, none of these students had heard about.

Near the end of our meeting, I showed them Cutthroat Capitalism' s website and asked them to go home, play it for an hour or so, and post their reactions to our online class forum. I gave them no further instructions or explanations, aside from noting that my request was relevant to our conversation. In the forum, I prompted them with this question:

Having played Cutthroat Capitalism, would you say the experience altered or enriched your thinking about the issue of Somali piracy? If so, how? If not, try to explain how the game might have been more effective. I have no stake in whether you like or dislike the game, so please feel free to be frank in your responses.

Here is a selection of comments posted to the forum:

It never occurred to me that when you win a negotiation you have to split the money with Elders and land-based security in Somalia. Plus you've got to pay off your backers, so when you win a $2 million ransom you're only left with a quarter of that to split with your crew. ... I'd say the game makes that part of the issue more clear because it makes you stop and think about how these guys weigh their options.

There's so many ships sailing through the area that you can only target a small fraction of them, and its hard to intercept them sometimes. The news stories don't really tell that part of it. You have to figure out which types of ships to hit, and some can outrun you, and some don't really have much money or cargo, so you waste your time on them... The game makes it more obvious that these pirates are small boats in a big ocean full of other boats, and chances are slim that you'll get targeted, so why not take your chances.

The game is too easy, which made me feel it's not realistic, but the stats we saw say most of the pirates are successful, so maybe not. You can win every time if you demand a low amount of money and treat the captives well. That one story we read about the pirate whose been doing it for years and never getting caught, he wins with this same strategy. He's basically a nice guy who treats everybody well and gets lots of small hijacks that add up to huge money. The newspaper story made it seem like they were glorifying the guy, but the game shows how his strategy works, so I think it's probably realistic after all. He's basically just a good businessman.

For the people who are vicitmized by pirates, it's not a game... Cutthroat Capitalism does an excellent job of explaining how pirates negotiate and the factors that go into that. In this part, the answer to "does it enrich my thinking?" is yes. But it also disturbs me because I don't think the issue of Somali piracy should be presented as a game. It reduces it to something less than what it is.

These and other responses suggest to me that Bogost, Ferrari, and Schwiezer are up to something important with Newsgames. My students clearly responded in ways that indicate deeper reflection on the issue of Somali piracy, provoked by their interactive experience with the game. My one-on-one conversations with several of them confirm this impression.

Cutthroat Capitalism only scratches the surface of how games can augment or enhance traditional journalism, according to Bogost, Ferrari, and Schwiezer. This modest post fails to convey the full breadth of their vision for newsgames. But I hope that by putting one to the test it's possible to discern that there is proof in the newsgame pudding.

Ian Bogost may be the most important game critic and researcher in the world, and Newsgames is his most useful contribution yet. If we're curious about the power of games to make a positive difference in the world, Bogost and his co-authors have proposed a dynamic and viable new way to do it.

Technicolor Lazarus


Dear budding game designers: Want to sell me a game? Here's a simple recipe guaranteed to trigger my grab-wallet impulse. Forget about character, story, action, or intrigue. Who needs 'em? Guns, stealth, and EXP - leave 'em on the white board. All I need is a dead grey world and the power to bring it back to colorful life. Technicolor Lazarus. Dorothy opening the door to Oz. The Red Balloon. Hooks me every time.

I will happily wear many hats. Lazarus the Painter (De Blob, Katamari Forever); Lazarus the Botanist (Flower, Okami); Lazarus the SuperFund Cleanup Manager (Prince of Persia, Epic Mickey) - variations on a regenerative theme. Show me something dead and let me revive it. I'll gleefully restore every flower and tree. Mix in some chill music, light platforming, environments worth exploring, and a dash of  puzzle-solving, and I'm in the palm of your hand.

My latest Technicolor Lazarus infatuation is The UnderGarden, an enchanting and beautifully constructed puzzle-platformer set in a mysterious subterranean world. The player steers a chubby floating pixie through each level, pollinating the flora and trees, gathering fruit, and unlocking hidden areas. Tiny musicians appear throughout each area, collaborating on an ambient soundtrack the player can assemble by collecting them together and towing them through the world. It makes no sense, really. Which is good.

If you're looking for brand new ideas here, you won't find them; but it doesn't matter. The UnderGarden's captivating atmosphere and deeply satisfying explore-and-discover gameplay won't leave you pining for innovation. The UnderGarden is a pleasure to play because its game world is such a wonderful place to be. Is that enough to recommend a game? Of course it is.

Happily, The UnderGarden's charms are more than atmospheric. Reviewers have typically described it as a "zen-game," and I won't quibble with that description. It offers an undeniably peaceful experience with no clock and no way for the player to die. But The UnderGarden is still very much a game, full of environmental obstacles and a variety of mechanically useful tools to solve them. It won't break your brain, but you'll need more than your autopilot-mind to progress.

The UnderGarden hasn't fared well on Metacritic. Most reviews complained the game "lacks substance." I would say that depends on what we consider substantive. Is simply being in a world that feels good to inhabit substance enough? Just how much game does a game need? Who's to say, when I'm floating aimlessly about, that I'm not playing to the fullest extent of my ludic sensibilities?

What's special about The UnderGarden is its fusion of atmospheric music and lush visuals with fluid, tactile movement that just feels right. Simple. Lovely. Like water flowing over rocks. Just being there. You can play to progress...or you can simply play to be, with no other thought in mind.

Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing? 

Benjamin: Well, I would say that I'm just drifting. Here in the pool. 

Mr. Braddock: Why? 

Benjamin: Well, it's very comfortable just to drift here. 

The UnderGarden is available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. I recommend giving it a try. Even better, play with a friend. Co-op UnderGarden is dual-dharma delicious.

Saving the world


We who care and write about games face a conundrum. We want to make the case for games to a mainstream culture with narrow, often misguided perceptions about what cames can be and do. But if we ring our bell too often, persistently demanding that games be taken seriously, our pleas smack of desperation.

If games should be mentioned in the same breath with other art forms - if they possess aesthetic qualities and communicate meaning - why don't we just shut up and let the games do the talking? Is it possible that our collective effort to culturally elevate games is ultimately self-defeating? 

Reality is Broken
In her new book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal walks squarely into the middle of this conundrum, but manages to avoid being ensnared by it. McGonigal isn't interested in delineating the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus or the ideological dimensions of Far Cry II. In fact, she mentions only a handful of popular games (Rock Band, Halo 3, World of Warcraft), and does so mostly in passing. 

It turns out that McGonigal isn't much interested in making the case for games at all. She has set her sights on more than cultural respectability for games. McGonigal believes games can make us better people. But that's not all. 

The game-enabled experiences McGonigal wants to explore (specialized ARGs, crowdsourced "very big games") occur in custom-designed games intended to produce socially positive goals. Games - or more aptly for McGonigal, the application of game design principles to real-world problems - can save the world. "They are, quite simply, the best hope we have for solving the most complex problems of our time."

Remember that bell I mentioned? McGonigal traded hers for a Chinese Opera gong.

How can McGonigal possibly prove such grandiose claims? Well, she can't - at least not completely - but she's remarkably effective at targeting thorny problems and designing games to address them. The persuasiveness of her arguments relies on her ability to explore an issue (such as injury recovery or "happiness hacking - translating positive-psychology research findings into game mechanics") and applying game design principles that target and address its causes.

McGonigal has an uncanny ability to break down a problem, identify a structure (goals, restrictions, feedback), and assign core mechanics that enable fun/useful interaction with the problem. Her chapters devoted to "Leveling Up in Life," and "Fun with Strangers" are full of terrific examples of games designed by McGonigal and others to incentivize simple, but important activities like convincing young people to stay in touch with their grandparents.

Missions Impossible
Later in the book, when McGonigal expands her scope to include complex worldwide issues like poverty and climate change, her reach seems to extend beyond her grasp, and it's difficult to see how a "serious game" like World Without Oil could have a truly meaningful impact on geopolitical issues of deep complexity. But here again, McGonigal's focus shifts to a root perspective. Serious games that address serious problems aren't necessarily built to solve those problems.

Instead, they do what James Paul Gee and others have suggested all effective games do: enable us to understand complex systems and develop intelligence and imaginative strategies for harnessing them. McGonigal subscribes to Will Wright's notion that "augmenting our natural capacity for imagination" is vital at this precise moment in history. "It's a matter of survival, pure and simple."

Games provoke our imaginations, big-picture thinking, and problem-solving impulses in ways that we can leverage for the good of the planet. "We have been playing good games for nearly as long as we have been human," says McGonigal. "It is now time to play them on extreme scales."

Reality is Broken is a wildly audacious work, and McGonigal puts herself on the line throughout the book with exalted assertions like: "It seems clear to me that games are the most likely candidate to serve as the next great breakthrough structure for life on earth." That she managed to beat back most of my knee-jerk retorts is a testament to her persuasiveness as a writer and the carefully constructed logic of her ideas. McGonigal is prepared to defend the turf she has staked out, and she makes no apologies for the grandiosity of her project. I'm skeptical about the power of game design to save the world, but McGonigal makes me doubt my doubts.

I am dubious about a few of her claims, however. ARGs like Cruel 2 B Kind - a crowd game designed to increase the social well-being of a place by dispatching teams of players dispensing hospitality and compliments to strangers - certainly looks like fun. But I question the real impact when such actions lack authentic inspiration. An act of kindness to a stranger is diminished when that act is delivered to score points, defeat an opponent, or win a game. I should note that I've never played Cruel 2 B Kind, so I should be careful not to dismiss it out of hand. 

I'm also troubled by McGonigal's assumption that people who regularly play games have "opted out of reality." She quotes Edward Castronova's term: a "mass exodus" to game spaces, and asserts that this exodus is "more than a perception. It's a phenomenon." She goes on to cite statistics that show hundreds of millions of active gamers worldwide, and she suggests these numbers prove we have turned to games because they are "teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not."

I'm one of those gamers, and I must say this characterization rings false to me. I accept McGonigal's notion that "video games are fulfilling genuine human needs," but I'm not convinced we've all turned to them because the real world cannot satisfy those needs. In fact, it's quite the opposite with me.

I wish games were more capable of addressing, exploring, or satisfying me as a human in the world. Too often, the disconnect flings me back to the real world, grateful for its complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. I do not play games as an escape from the real world. More often, I play them seeking ways to abstract, virtually explore, or amplify the non-virtual world I find infinitely more interesting.

Read it!
These objections do nothing to diminish my admiration and gratitude for Reality is Broken. McGonigal's mission couldn't possibly be more ambitious, and she succeeds to an astonishingly impressive degree. This is a thoughtful, generous, and forward-looking work that offers a path to a bright future if we're willing to learn the valuable lessons games can teach us. It's a hopeful vision supported by pragmatic ideas rooted in proven design principles. As McGonigal puts it, "Games aren't leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They're leading us to its reinvention." 

Book week

RealityIsBroken  Newsgamescover  FunInc

It's book week at Brainy Gamer! In my next fews posts, I'll look at three new books by Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken), Ian Bogost (Newsgames, with collaborators Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweitzer), and Tom Chatfield (Fun, Inc.). All three propose that games have the power to do important, transformative work, but they differ wildly in their goals and rhetorical strategies. 

Today I'll mainly set the table, taking a brief look at Reality is Broken. In my next post, I'll offer a closer look, and, taking my cue from McGonigal, I'll offer a few design ideas of my own. 

Game designer and theorist Jane McGonigal has been making the rounds recently - delivering a TED talk, appearing on NPR and The Colbert Report, and touring the country to promote her new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. It's a fascinating read. While I'm not convinced by all her arguments, and I believe single-player games deserve more attention than she gives them, McGonigal's central premise breaks important ground, and her ideas deserve careful consideration by all of us who care about games and their impact on society.

McGonigal believes games offer a structural model for incentivizing and rewarding positive thoughts and actions. Games, McGonigal says, are "happiness engines," and we can develop more fulfilling, productive, and close-knit groups (families, communities, businesses, etc.) by making them more "gameful."

It's easy to be skeptical about McGonigal's claims. Browse your local bookstore, and you'll find dozens of agents for change - social entrepreneurs, positive thinkers, vegans, ecologists, evangelists, philosophers - all claiming the power to change the world. Game design can be seen as just another paradigm for encouraging people to re-examine their assumptions and adopt new mental tools. In this light, McGonigal is a new-age Norman Vincent Peale, peddling the power of positive thinking to Millennials...GAMIFIED!

But such a view of McGonigal's work ignores the levelheaded approach and clear-sighted vision conveyed by Reality is Broken. This book is not an instructional manual for building a games-centric utopia or a pop-sociology study of "game culture." McGonigal does not issue a clarion call for "games as art," nor does she plead a case for games as culturally respectable or worthy of study. 

Instead, she begins with the premise that games possess the power to fulfill "genuine human needs," and she devotes fourteen chapters to examining why and how we might leverage that game-player interaction to benefit ourselves and others. Many of McGonigal's claims - such as her contention that games encourage behavior that is "urgently optimistic in the face of failure" - help us see the potential of game design principles outside the game space. 

McGonigal also explains why "synchronized engagement" and "collective commitment" create intangible but powerfully satisfying rewards for players. She's especially adept at explaining why "Games don't just happen. Gamers work to make them happen." This prosocial behavior, even in competitive games, has powerful implications. If working for the mutual benefit of all players makes a better game, what else can we do with that system?

McGonigal believes people need more "epic wins": opportunities to do extraordinary things. She describes a phenomenon that rings true with me - one that's grown more prevalent in my classroom over the last decade. "There's an undeniable tendency toward irony, cynicism, and detachment in popular culture today," she notes. Games motivate players to care deeply about their actions and drive them to achieve big, momentous outcomes. It's worth asking why this disconnect exists. Why do players engage so deeply and willingly in a fictional world, but perceive positive, selfless behavior in the real one so dubiously?

Serious talk about games is trending. Thoughtful consideration of the medium now extends beyond geek culture into mainstream popular media and academia. Thought-leaders like McGonigal and Ian Bogost (whose latest book Newsgames proposes "a new way of doing good journalism") are tapping into the zeitgeist as commentators while also working to define and advance it as creators.

Newsgames deserves more time than I can devote to it now. I'll return later this week with a more thorough examination. Fun, Inc. will come last. There's a reason for that. I'll explain. Hope you'll stick around.

Sackboy packing heat


I'm an exhuberant inhabitant of LittleBigPlanet. I love both games with a devotion that borders on irrational. Almost as much as the games themselves, I love Media Molecule's two big ideas: 1) create an unapologetically whimsical world drawn from the materials inside our playful imaginations; 2) encourage players to design, build, and share their creations with the same powerful tools the developers used.

LittleBigPlanet isn't just a game; it's an expression of a design philosophy that actually makes good on Sony's "Play, Create, Share" buzz-phrase mantra. As long-time modders, Trackmania fans, and Minecraft aficionados know, LPB isn't the first or only game to offer players powerful tools to do creative things.

But Media Molecule is up to something different with LBP. They want to present a world that taps into our child-like imaginations and transform that exchange into a self-sustaining ethos. In its opening moments, LBP 2 puts it this way:

Dreams. Fantasies. Ideas. Where do they go when life brings you tumbling back to the now? One by one, they drift away to the cosmic imagisphere. From the atomic to the galactic, they dance and they whirl unfettered by worry and concern. The heavenly ballet of the wonderplane. And sometimes this dance creates something astonishing. Out pops a transcendental dreamverse. A remarkable place where the real meets the fantastic. And this vast expanse of imagination has a name. They call it LittleBigPlanet.

Imagispheres, wonderplanes, and dreamverses. It's an audacious and potentially laughable mission statement, but when Stephen Fry delivers it with such commitment and panache - when you get your first look at LBP's craft-world; when you're given control of the ridiculously adorable Sackboy; when you discover the faces of the game's creators scattered throughout the opening level - it all begins to make sense.

By the time you've met Larry Da Vinci and Victoria von Bathysphere, donned your first head-mounted cake-launcher, or ascended the Tower of Whoop, the world of LBP 2 feels like an oddly unified place, just as the original did two years ago. LBP 2 features fun new mechanics for navigating its levels, and Media Molecule has managed to expand and streamline the toolset for creating original levels. I'll take a closer look at these improvements in a future post.

Sadly, LBP 2 adds one element that I find disappointing and incongruous. After blithely grappling and grabinating my way through "Victoria's Laboratory" and the "Factory of a Better Tomorrow," I arrived at "Avalonia," for Sackboy's "armaments training." If you played the Metal Gear DLC for LBP 1, this level will look a bit familiar. Media Molecule introduced a gun in that pack called the "Paintenator," a clever addition (with accompanying MGS costumes) that hearkened to Snake and company without ceding to its violence. True to the world of LBP, the new gun shot blobs of paint instead of bullets, and players found all sorts of clever ways to use it in their own original levels.

In LBP 2, Sackboy is sent on a training mission in which he learns to fire laser shots from a turret mounted on the back of a camel. Soon, the Negativitron's minions attack, and Sackboy begins lining them up in his crosshairs and mowing them down from his turret. LBP 2 becomes a side-scrolling rail-shooter, and Sackboy mans a lethal gun. 

This sequence doesn't ruin LBP 2 for me, nor does it diminish the many wonderful aspects of the game. But I do find it disappointing. Given all its creators have done to build a lovely idiosyncratic world across two brilliant games, it's too bad this one bows to aping the gun-toting elements of so many conventional games.

I'm aware both LBP games include violence. Bombs, spikes, fire, electrocution - all exist as environmental hazards to avoid. I don't object to violence, especially when depicted in the cartoonish ways that typify LBP's aesthetics. It's just hard for me to make sense of Sackboy packing heat.

In many important ways, LittleBigPlanet functions as an antidote to the same-old-same-old we see across the game design space. Its creators have proven themselves geniuses at creating a self-contained playful universe that, delightfully, makes no logical sense. Sackboy blasting away from a turret just feels wrong. I fear that, in an effort to give players more design assets to acquire for original creations, Media Molecule compromised the integrity of the world they so carefully and lovingly built.