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March 2011

The gamer's game


"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."
--Song of Solomon 2:11-12, quoted annually at the start of spring training by Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell

Hear me out on this one, okay?

Today is my favorite day of the year. It's baseball's Opening Day, an occasion I joyfully greet every season. Winter is over. The boys of summer have arrived. Play ball!

I'm keenly aware that few BG readers share my passion for our national pastime. Whenever I hit "publish" on a baseball-related essay, I fold my arms, sit back in my chair, and watch my traffic plummet. I find this oddly satisfying, although I'm not sure why. Probably something to do with obstinacy.

Why do I like baseball? I could go on about the poetic symmetry of the diamond or the metaphorical grace of the sacrifice bunt. I could name-drop the great novelists and poets who've found lyrical beauty in the game: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ogden Nash, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth. 

But chances are, you'd remain unconvinced, and my efforts would smack of profundity over-reach. After all, what's so poetic about a bunch of guys in baggy pants trying - and mostly failing - to whack a 5-ounce cowhide-covered sphere? Baseball, to the non-fan, is a slow, dull affair with far more pauses than action. The nostalgia wears off by the 3rd-inning.

Okay. Most of you don't care about baseball. I understand. Nevertheless, give me one shot to convince you there are strong connections between the games you like - video games, I mean - and the game of baseball. In the end, you may not buy my argument, but maybe you'll better understand why nutjobs like me find the game of baseball so endlessly fascinating.

  • Baseball is a turn-based tactical role-playing game. Casual fans love watching Albert Pujols blast one over the fence, but hardcore fans like me derive our satisfaction from the strategic 3-way interplay that preceded that moment, determined by the manager, the pitcher, and the batter. A change-up on a 2-1 pitch; shifting the infielders to guard the lines; a hitter guessing outside fastball that he can take the opposite way.

  • The real action is in the tactics. The pitch/swing sequence is the dice roll.

  • Baseball is a 9-stage boss battle, and the pitcher is the boss. To defeat him, you must hit him repeatedly or gradually wear him down. He has strengths and weaknesses you must identify and exploit. If you can successfully guess what he’s about to cast, you can use it against him and deal damage. Near the end of the game, he may be replaced by an even stronger boss with a higher ATT, but much lower HP.

  • Casual fans fancy themselves the slugger with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Fans like me imagine themselves the manager in the dugout with a lineup card and a book full of statistics. The manager is the serious fan's conduit to the game. Players execute strategies determined by the manager. He chooses the lineups, and he develops in-game tactics based on the flow of the game and the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. A baseball manager always thinks three moves ahead.

  • Baseball is for braniacs. No sport is more deeply embedded in numbers. Statistics and probabilities govern strategy, and baseball connoisseurs pour over these numbers like accountants searching for tax loopholes. Unheralded Gene Woodling batted .283 for the Yankees during the 1950 season, but clobbered the Phillies in the World Series, hitting .429. Why? The Phillies pitched only one left-hander in four games, and Woodling ate right-handers for lunch.

  • Baseball players like Woodling have attributes. A pitcher with a low ERA against left-handed batters, but high against right-handed batters might be thought of as +10 against lefties and -5 against righties. Similarly, a batter with three balls and no strikes might raise his line-drive attributes by +10.

  • Situational tactics are key. Knowing which batters are due up next inning will determine which reliever you decide to warm up in the bullpen - unless the other manager chooses a pinch-hitter, in which case your decision may change.

  • Managers position their players on the field strategically to account for their range of movement and what they expect their opponent will do.

  • After choosing and positioning your party members and executing your strategies, your turn ends. Then it’s your opponent’s turn, and you must play defense. The combined strength of your party members (eight players essentially buffing one pitcher) and your ability to anticipate your opponent’s moves will largely determine the outcome.

  • Some rare baseball players have the ability to cast magic spells on their opponents. Anyone who doubts this claim never saw Ted Williams hit, Sandy Koufax pitch, or Willie Mays play centerfield.

So that’s my pitch. Heh. Happy Opening Day everyone. Enjoy the game of baseball. It's a beautiful game. I’ll let Ernie Harwell have the final word.

Ernie long gone

Look Ma! It's autostereoscopic!


I don't typically do hardware reviews, but after a few days with Nintendo's crazy/brilliant 3DS device, I feel compelled to share my impressions. If you're wondering whether or not to take the $250 leap into 3D handheld gaming, maybe I can be helpful. 

When I say "crazy/brilliant," I mean both. In releasing the 3DS, Nintendo has made a series of befuddling "what were they thinking?" choices that seem crazy to me. On the other hand, the device packs a brilliant wow-factor punch that turns every new owner into an uncompensated sales rep for Nintendo. Since the 3DS can't be adequately demonstrated on TV or in print, new owners of the device become walking demo kiosks. Your friends will see it and be amazed. Seriously.

So, for what it's worth, here's the crazy:

The launch-day lineup of games is embarrassingly weak. Reggie and the PR gang at Nintendo have touted the number of release games (sixteen) as proof that the 3DS is the best-supported system launch in Nintendo history. At the risk of being a contrarian, I would argue the Nintendo 64's pitiful selection at launch (two games) easily bests the 3DS's. One Super Mario 64 puts sixteen mediocre games to shame, in my book.

It's hard to understand why Nintendo didn't develop a first-class showcase game to lead the way for other developers to exploit the power of the new hardware. They did it with SM64, and they did it again with Wii Sports. The pack-in AR Games point in that direction (and genuine jaw-droppers they are), but they're more proof-of-concept demos than fleshed out games.

Should have bought Super Street Fighter IV 3D.
I've played all three 1st-party games (Pilotwings Resort, Steel Diver, and Nintendogs + Cats) and several 3rd-party titles (Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, Ridge Racer 3D, and Super Monkey Ball 3D), and I can't find a single good thing to say about any of them. For the most part, they're thin (Steel Diver), shallow (Monkey Ball), 3D-after-thought (Lego Star Wars) games - or in the case of Nintendogs + Cats, a $40 re-release of a DS game with mostly cosmetic updates.

Pilotwings is fun, and it nicely showcases the system's 3D visuals, but after an hour or so the fun tank runs empty. As with all of these games, it feels like the developers grew so enamored of their games' 3D-ness that they forgot to finish making them. 

Which brings me to the value question. In a market full of iOS games that run circles around these launch titles, is it realistic to expect consumers to pay $40 for a 3DS game? Launch games are notoriously immature, and I'm sure developers will eventually dream up all sorts of wonderful ways to leverage the 3DS's power. But will the 3D value-add cover the $30-35 price difference? As much as I hope this slick little aqua device will succeed, I fear Nintendo's pricing model isn't sustainable. Some have suggested the unit itself is too pricey at $250, and that may be true; but I see the current price of its games as a bigger hurdle.

The 3DS includes a web browser...but it won't be available for month or two. Owners can download new 3DS games, as well as DSiWare and retro Gameboy games...but the new eShop isn't ready yet. Nintendo's inability to have a robust download service up and running at launch suggests their struggle to implement a coherent online strategy continues.

They want to get it right, and that makes sense, but releasing a ballyhooed new system with major announced features missing is inexcusable. Imagine if Apple had released the iPad with its app store "coming soon." With its new connectivity-enhanced online-enabled device, Nintendo's priority remains boxed hard media, even as every industry trend moves in the opposite direction.


Now for the brilliant stuff
The 3DS delivers on its promise of amazing 3D visuals, sans glasses. This fact alone nearly overcomes all the negatives. In my first few hours with the device, I couldn't help turning it on every few minutes, just to be sure I wasn't fooling myself. 

It literally draws a crowd. I brought my 3DS to class with me this morning, and before I knew it five students were hunched over the shoulder of one playing FaceRaiders. The 3D camera blew them away. I sold half a dozen units today. Easy. Kiosk.

The AR cards are incredibly ripe for imaginative game design. Place a card on a table, train your 3DS cameras on it, and up sprouts a 3-dimensional character or place. So many possibilities, especially as items to trade or to augment other games. If you've heard people describe the 3DS as jaw-dropping, it's likely they were talking about the pack-in AR Games.

The 3D slider is quite useful for finding your own sweet spot. The 3D effect may initially disorient you, but adjusting the slider and your viewing angle will bring everything into focus. I find that when I wear my glasses, I prefer to set it a little higher than when I wear my contact lenses. The device is light and feels comfortable in my hands. Nintendo finally wised up and moved the headphone jack to the front center of the unit. You may decide not to use it, however, because the 3DS produces surprisingly rich, resonant sound through its speakers.

Built-in fun
Mii Studio, 3D photos, the FaceRaders game, the StreetPass mode that exchanges Miis with other 3DS owners as you walk past them (among other game-specific functionality) - all are fun, distinctive features built into the system. Nintendo still insists on Friend Codes, but trading Miis is easy because you can export them as QR Codes, square-shaped barcodes that can be read by scanners and the 3DS camera.

I hope these early impressions of the 3DS are helpful. I don't know if it's a must-buy, a maybe-buy, or a wait-and-see system. Those sorts of recommendations aren't my bag. I do know I'm excited about the 3DS's possibilities, and I'm savoring its novelty-cool. We'll see how long that lasts. In the end it won't be about the device anyway. It's always about the games.

Addendum: When I wrote this post I hadn't yet played a standard DS game on the 3DS. This morning I popped Pokémon White into the system for a look. My advice: hold on to your DS Lite or DSi. The 3DS's 800x240 top screen display (400x240 for each eye, basically) is significantly greater than the DSi's 256x192. To compensate, the 3DS defaults to upscaling, which produces some fairly nasty fuzziness on both screens. If you hold down start+select when loading a DS game, you can run it at what Nintendo calls "native resolution," but the images on both screens are shrunk significantly. Destructoid posted a photo that shows what this shrinkage looks like.

When better isn't better


One of my favorite games, Beyond Good & Evil, has returned in a sparkly new HD edition. Curious about how the visual upgrade might impact my experience, I downloaded the game and played through most of it again. The verdict? Meh.

Without question, the HD edition is a graphical overhaul. The water effects look great, character models look sharper, and the new widescreen treatment makes Hillys look like a wonderful place to be hoodwinked by the Alpha Sections.

I don't object to the recent spate of HD makeovers. I'm thrilled to see Sly Cooper return for an encore; RE4 HD will undoubtedly lure me back to rural unnamed-Spain; and Ico/SotC in HD? Well, obviously, I'm there. If an HD upgrade entices a young player to try any of these games for the first time, that's justification enough for their existence.

But that's unlikely to happen with BG&E. Players uninterested in the game won't be swayed by visuals that land somewhere in the uncomfortable space between blocky last-gen and silky current-gen specs. The game looks better than the original, if enhanced textures and a 1080p resolution bump define what "better" means. But is it really better?

Part of the genius behind BG&E's design is a colorful art style that lived comfortably within the constraints of a 480p display. The original made no effort to render realistic characters or environments, nor did it adopt the cell-shaded look of Wind Waker or XIII, both released the same year. 

BG&E's distinctive art direction put a premium on character design, and while I suppose Jade, Pey'j, and Double H look smoother in their HD reincarnations, I'm not at all certain they look better. In fact, since some NPC characters don't get the HD treatment (e.g. the reporter near the beginning of the game), the visual collision feels jarring in ways the original never did. What's more, the HD enhancements are by no means consistent. I found blurry textures and weird geometry throughout.

Beyond skin deep
We can quibble over textures and polygons, but ultimately these matter far less than the game design elements a graphics overhaul can't touch. It pains me to say it, but BG&E's innovative-for-its-time open world feels confining and geographically unimaginative eight years later, and its stealth and combat sections suffer in comparison to most modern games, especially when camera issues arise...and they do. Often.

Jade remains one of my favorite characters in the history of video games, and her playful relationship with Pey'j still warms my heart. But if I'm perfectly honest, I must confess that BG&E's story seemed deeper and more resonant in my memory than in my experience replaying the game.

BG&E's storytelling relies heavily on plot twists and reversals that are telegraphed from the earliest stages of the game. "Beyond Good & Evil" ultimately functions as an odd title for a game with little interest in moral complexity. We quickly learn who's good and who's pretending to be good. From there, it's mostly a dash to the finish, with a few 11th-hour plot bombs that began ticking hours earlier.

BG&E still has more charm than most games I've played, and its first hour is a virtual clinic on how to build genuine empathy for a video game protagonist. One of these days I need to write about that. But it's hard for me to see how this HD makeover enhances the original Beyond Good & Evil. Sharpening it up and encouraging us to take a closer look may just do the opposite.

LittleBig artists


The "games as art" debate won't be settled by critics, conference panels, or forum philosophers. It will be settled by artists. There will be no seminal essay or winning argument. At some point, we'll look out at a vast body of work - amassed over time, built by skilled creators, unbound by classifications - and the fact will be obvious. Like the rising sun. We'll notice and agree it was there all along. We'll realize it didn't actually rise at all. We just needed time to turn and see it.

An inspired group of artists is quietly creating work of surpassing quality in the LittleBigPlanet community. These original designs bear the markings of artistry: imagination, self-expression, craftsmanship, visual coherence, architectural and kinetic beauty. Like all good art, these inspired creations stand out in a sea of shoddy, derivative, or merely competent work.

Of course no aesthetic taxonomy can suitably account for what is or isn't 'artistic,' and any attempt to define 'beauty' leads to a rabbit hole with no exit. Moreover, even among players who agree games can be aesthetically ambitious, few cite user-created LBP levels as worthy of such consideration. Their work is ignored for reasons similar to the ones gallery owners once used to reject quilts and other textile art. They don't require special talent to make. They re-use the same basic materials over and over. They all look alike. 

When I examine the levels conceived by the gifted designers featured below, I see ambitious and evocative creations. I discover ideas and surprises. I play inside worlds that fill me with joy, wonder, and even dread. I marvel at their cleverness and ingenuity. I dig for the secrets of their construction. As an artist from another medium, I well know what provokes this complex interplay of thoughts and emotions in me, and I'm accustomed to calling it art.

It's so much more than just a game isn't it? The fact I can sit in my little flat in London with a cup of tea, beavering away on some random Star Wars tribute level and a month later someone sitting in Japan, drinking HIS tea, loads it into his PS3 and plays what I've made. I still find that completely awesome.
                                                        --Level designer "julesyjules"[1]

So, who are these wonderful creators? I can't highlight them all, but I'll point to a handful of my favorites. If you're a longtime LBP player, you're probably already familiar with their work. All remain active in the LBP community, sharing ideas and helping others improve their skills.

These designers share certain traits common among artists. Each has created a distinctive body of work. Each possesses a recognizable signature style. Every inch of their work has been carefully considered. An unmistakable craftsmanship and design savvy elevates these levels above the work of less capable designers. Their levels are full of great ideas, beautifully executed. Play them and see for yourself.


Lockstitch created some of the most beautiful original levels for LBP1, and he continues to inspire other designers with his newest creations for LBP2 - one of which, Refuse Ridge, appeared just yesterday. Lockstitch has made judicious use of LBP2's new tools, utilizing some (bounce pads and camera options) while ignoring others (controllinator and sackbots). Budding creators interested in platform design would do well to contrast Refuse Ridge with his work on Vile Anchorage, one of my favorite LBP1 designs. Lockstitch demonstrates why restraint can be a virtue.


Poms may be the most imaginative designer in the LBP community. His work often stakes out a point of view, which has alienated some players who apparently think LBP levels should only be about 'fun.' Poms' creations are great fun, but they also explore (literally, in the case of The Miracle of Life) human reproduction and religion (Hell's Angels 1&2). Poms is a master of lighting and materials, and he frequently returns to his creations to tweak and improve them. His newest work for LBP2 is a series called Brainwash TV. The title speaks for itself.


Ruof is my favorite LBP level designer. His creations aren't the flashiest or most frenetic. He rarely builds complex gadgets, and his levels won't challenge anyone's platforming skills. But there's something unmistakably soulful about Ruof's work. He makes quiet little platformers that feel more like lovely toys than games. In Ruof's designs, the world responds to the player. Rather than presenting a series of obstacles, his levels unfold in lovely, clever little ways. Ruof has a thing for stairs that magically appear, descend, unfold or otherwise present themselves. If LBP makes a digital universe feel warm and tactile, Ruof is the best example of why that feels so good. Try his Starry Night (LBP1) and 2nd Li'l Platformer (LBP2).


Nobody said LBP needs to be sunshine and roses all the time. Ungreth brings a gothic, haunted vision to his creations. The self-written description on his page reads: "Ungreth is a turd. Don't trust him, don't play with him, and avoid his levels like AIDS. He's not as good as he thinks he is anyway...his levels are really confusing and frustrating to play." Don't believe him. Tenement: LBP2 Edition will take you far away from Media Molecule's Craftworld. Can a side-scrolling LBP level really depict tragedy, suicide, and loss with cuddly sackboy characters? Believe it or not, yes.


If you want to trace the maturation of an LBP level designer, check out the evolution of Lfiers work from his first LBP1 creation, Resident Raytech (LBP1) to his newest design, Symphony of Dissonance (LBP2), released last week. Observe what he's learned about varied level design, pacing, scenario presentation, and camera work. Symphony of Dissonance cleverly enables player-driven platform creation as interactive gameplay. This adventure is easily on par with the best of the story levels designed by Media Molecule.

I'll also mention a few individual levels that caught my eye recently:

  • Stereo/mono 2 is a rhythm-platformer that makes terrific use of LBP2's powerful lighting and sequencing controls. 
  • Industrial Platforms is a fabulous level created by a 10th-grader learning about game design. 
  • Cause and Effect 5 is the latest in a series of films built with LBP2's toolset. The entire thing relies on physics. "No buttons, switches or pistons. Just gravity and inertia."

This is the last of three posts devoted to LittleBigPlanet and its community of creators. You can find the previous two here and here.

LittleBig classroom


In my previous post I discussed how LittleBigPlanet encourages game design literacy, and I promised to showcase a few original level designers and their work. I'll deliver on that promise - hey, sorting through nearly 4 million levels takes time, folks! - but before I do I want to highlight some other creative ways people are using LBP's tools: namely to teach kids.

LittleBigPlanet 2 introduces major design tool upgrades: more flexible switches and emitters; enhanced lighting and logic tools; movers and microchips, among other additions and improvements. Only two months after its release, the impact of LBP2's overhauled toolset - at once more powerful and more accessible - can easily be seen in the flood of new user-generated levels.

As you might expect, the chaff far outweighs the wheat, but it's not difficult to discover good and occasionally exceptional work via the new Community Portal,, which may be the most important LBP2 upgrade of all. You can add levels to your queue from the website, then load up the game and play them right away. 

Below I've highlighted several projects designed to teach kids axioms, postulates, and theorems; elementary physics; logic; binary numbers; and the properties of stem cells. These projects, and many others, were part of last year's Digital Media and Learning Conference, which I was privileged to attend. You can find out more about the DML Conference here.

No one believes that "LBP Pedagogy" invalidates other useful teaching methods, but I do believe these projects offer exciting, interactive activities to help kids learn. Some of these students will inevitably be sparked to create original levels of their own, and I've already tried to explain why that's a very good thing.

A Day in the Life of a Computer
Project site
Aimed primarily at 11-18 year olds, A Day in the Life of a Computer teaches key Computer Science concepts such as binary code, logic and programming, in a fun and easy to understand way. Last week its designers released this update on their progress, which highlights both CS concepts and LBP2's logic tools for level design.

Discovery Pier page
Players are immersed in the high-octane world of an amusement park. While interacting with a variety of thrill rides, in-game lessons teach players the critical principles of physics and engineering that are at work in each ride, as well as offering simple lessons on how the ride was created. Players can then use what they have learned to design and build their own fully rendered and animated amusement park rides.

Sackboys and the Mysterious Proof page
Players must escape from the Proof family's century-old mansion by solving a series of puzzles using deductive reasoning. With puzzle mechanics driven by geometric theorems, students will convert geometric concepts from the classroom into active knowledge through collaborative play that emulates the steps of a mathematical proof.

Note: The image at the top of the post is an early design sketch for Sackboys and the Mysterious Proof.

Stem Cell Sack Boy (Beta) page
This level takes Sackboy to the cellular level. Using "SackCell Technology," players shrink to microscopic sizes to take part in the growing field of stem cell research and therapy. Players learn about the processes of cell growth and reproduction while exploring the importance of stem cell research and the ethical issues that surround it. 

Addendum: My Twitter pal Danielle Riendeau contacted me to say she's currently teaching a game design fundamentals course using LittleBigPlanet as the primary tool. She writes about it on her blog LittleBigClass, and I highly recommend you check it out.

LittleBig literacy


Everyone who has had in his hands a piece of film to be edited knows by experience how neutral it remains, even though a part of a planned sequence, until it is joined with another piece, when it suddenly acquires and conveys a sharper and quite different meaning than that planned for it at the time of filming.
                                                              --Sergei Eisenstein

Shortly after its release in 1916, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance was brought to Russia, but exhibitors rejected it. After the Revolution, the Bolshevik government arranged premieres of the film in Moscow and Petrograd, touting the film's "agitational" qualities. Lenin, who saw the film as a model of proletarian ideals, ordered that it be shown throughout the Soviet Union, and it ran continuously for nearly ten years.[1]

Prints of Intolerance were screened at the Kuleshov Workshop so frequently that they began to fall apart. Film stock was scarce in those days, so Kuleshov and his students began reassembling Griffith's sequences into hundreds of different combinations, creating different meanings from the same essential text. Kuleshov's landmark theory that film conveys meaning through the juxtaposition of shots was proven true even before he conducted his famous experiement with footage he shot himself.

I thought of Kuleshov and Intolerance last week while listening to Clint Hocking grapple with a question raised by Chris Hecker at a previous GDC: How do games mean? In other words, if film's basic unit of meaning is the shot, and the language of film is communicated via sequential editing, what is the language of video games? Can we understand how they convey meaning as clearly as Kuleshov came to articulate montage?

It's a valuable question worth pursuing, and Hocking's answer (simplified) - that dynamics emerge from player behaviors in response to mechanics and rules - helpfully articulates a relationship between player and game that's distinct from film, theater, etc.

But we tend to forget one important fact about those early theorists and filmmakers like Kuleshov and Vertov. They didn't discover the language of film. They were simply the first to articulate a theoretical description of it.

Griffith, whose film Intolerance was probably the most influential film of the Soviet era, instinctively practiced these principles in all his major films. He was instrumental in formulating the syntax of film by employing it - sometimes brilliantly, other times less so - in his own work. He came to understand film as an idiom by speaking its language himself. The framework he built, consciously or not, became the theoretical foundation for a lineage of filmmakers, beginning with Eisenstein, who studied these techniques and responded with his own refinements.

I mention all this because I see fascinating parallels between the creatively experimental work Kuleshov and his students did with Intolerance and the wild variety of creations currently being produced by the LittleBigPlanet community. In both cases, a brilliantly conceived set of assets is manipulated to produce original work that is unique and individually expressive, but channeled through a singular vision. The resulting creations are interesting by themselves, but more importantly they function as formal experiments that explore how to do and say different things with the same basic set of materials.

LBP 2's enhanced toolset offers more possibilities for breaking the platformer template, but even as designers try their hands at shooters and RPGs they continue to grapple with formal issues of design and construction. To extend the Intolerance parallel further, we can see this kind of 3rd-party experimentation as enormously useful if we assume it has effects beyond Sony's "Play/Share/Create" mantra. For those willing to dive in head-first (both creators and players eager to try original content), it promotes, for lack of a better term, video game literacy.

Such literacy produces more discerning players and more possibilities for progressive design ideas. It fosters an audience more receptive to both homage and experimentation. If you want to hear a creator reflect on the value of studying design from a player's perspective, ask Daisuke Amaya (aka "Pixel," creator of Cave Story) where he "went to school" as a game designer.

Maybe it's unreasonable to hope that "the Eisenstein of video game designers" will emerge from the LBP community, but as I've made my way through dozens of original levels recently, it's become clear that some of these designers are producing work of exceptional quality and refinement. Despite what you may have heard, not every LBP designer is working on a Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 clone. 

In my next post I'll feature a few of the most gifted LBP designers I've found, and I'll discuss why their work deserves your attention. In the meantime, if you haven't played LittleBigPlanet 2 you should remedy that at your earliest convenience. Yes, it's "floaty." Sackboy isn't Mario. You'll be fine. A game with so many wonderful ideas should be celebrated for what it is, not for what it isn't.

1. David Cook's "A History of Narrative Film" includes a fascinating account of Intolerance's impact on Soviet cinema, and I highly recommend it. I draw from Cook's work in this post.

Pulling their weight

Tug Of War 2

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! [1]

The schedulers for this year's GDC had a curious sense of timing. At the same hour David Cage was speaking about storytelling in Heavy Rain, Kent Hudson (lead designer at LucasArts) was across the hall speaking on the very same subject. It's tempting to suggest the two were a corridor apart, but miles away from each other philosophically. Tempting, but not quite accurate.

Coupled with LucasArts Creative Director Clint Hocking's session on dynamics, Hudson's talk offered a vision of interactive storytelling that would seem diametrically opposed to Cage's at Quantic Dream. And yet, Hudson's catalog blurb (above) could easily have been lifted from Cage's abstract. When Clint Hocking asks "What is the role of the author and of the interactor, and how do they share in the generation of meaning?" he is essentially posing the same question Cage addressed in Heavy Rain

In fact, it's easy to imagine Hocking observing "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game," but those words belong to Cage, who might as well be describing Hocking's goals for Far Cry 2.

If Cage and Hocking ask similar questions, then we might assume the gaping divide we perceive between them appears in their answers. But here again a simple binary "who's side are you on?" characterization doesn't quite work. 

No doubt, Cage's cavalier dismissal of mechanics and rules flies in the face of Hocking's system-driven approach to design. Cage still believes classic literary techniques (authored narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, closure, etc.) apply to games, and he's more comfortable relying on traditional dramaturgy than Hocking.

So I'm not suggesting both designers are essentially saying the same thing. They aren't. Nevertheless, I saw some noteworthy common ground emerge between Cage and Hocking at GDC this year, mainly due to the continuing evolution of Hocking's vision for interactive storytelling.

Clinthocking Hocking still clearly believes in player agency and the unique possibilities for emergent meaning that games can provide. But in his talk this year, Hocking focused more on people than systems. "Meaning comes from the application of skin to mechanics," he observed. "The mechanics don't, in fact, create meaning, but how we play does." 

Dynamics that produce meaning stem from a designed system, of course, but Hocking's example of clever authorship in this regard was telling. He referred to Hemingway's six-word short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," in which the author's meaning is clear, despite a lack of details or specifics. The balance between authorial intention and reader interpretation suggest essential roles for each, and that's a bit of a recalibration (if not a conceptual reversal) for Hocking. It makes the distance between him and Cage look more like an ocean than a galaxy. 

Hocking wondered how changing a narrative's dynamics might also change its meaning. Referencing Brenda Brathwaite's Holocaust-themed board game Train, Hocking suggested that it's possible to alter an abstract game like Tetris by applying a narrative layer on top of it. Attaching Train's narrative to Tetris (cooperate with the Nazis and pack together as many blocks full of people as possible; or defy them by creating as many gaps as possible) changes what Tetris means and suggests something important about how games impart meaning. 

"We must observe the game at run-time to understand what it means to the players," Hocking noted. Small choices made in apparently insignificant moments help define the player and his experience. Hocking related the story of a Go master who characterized a challenger's move as "ugly. …it was like smearing ink over the painting we had made." The player is how he plays.

David Cage sees such moments as opportunities to "bend" the story. Hocking sees them as expressions of a player's personality and sensibilities. Both see the potential meaning derived as synthetic and instantial, in-the-moment dialectics between player and game. "How you play the game matters greatly," observed Hocking. What the player brings to that experience will help define the meaning of that experience - sentiments Cage expressed in his talk as well.

I don't claim that David Cage and Clint Hocking are more alike than different as designers. But I am suggesting their ideas aren't as diametrically opposed as we might think. It may be fun to pit one against another, but creativity doesn't work like Parliamentary debate. One idea needn't invalidate another to 'win.' Both can be right. Both can be wrong. The other two outcomes are also in play.

If GDC has value as an idea incubator, it's because the conversations it hosts promote multiple points of view for broad consideration. This isn't about sing-along Kumbayah; it's about sharing and maximizing resources to make better games. To this end, Cage and Hocking are pulling more than their weight.

Rollercoaster bias


David Cage says Heavy Rain succeeds where other narrative games fail because it delivers an "emotional, story-driven, and meaningful experience for adults." Cage made his case in a talk at GDC entitled "Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in Heavy Rain."

Before I get to the substance of Cage's talk, a little disclosure is probably in order. I didn't like Heavy Rain, and I'm dubious about many of Cage's claims about his game. I entered his talk skeptical and exited unconvinced. Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by his ideas about game design, and some of his assertions are undeniable. Cage makes a strong case for why so many narrative games leave us feeling cold and a little embarrassed. As a designer, he's shooting for something richer and more mature, and he's a passionate advocate for games aimed at adults.

The bias problem
David Cage is certain. He knows what he knows, and his proof is in the pudding Quantic Dream cooked up for us with Heavy Rain. Cage wants to deliver hard truths to a room full of designers invested in the future of narrative games, but his vision is impaired by three limiting biases:

  • Selection bias - Cage uses his own work as proof of his theories, so all the evidence for the validity of his claims traces back to Heavy Rain. The other games Cage cited in his presentation were used as foils against which the superiority of Heavy Rain could be seen.

  • Measurement bias - Cage measures his data toward an expected outcome. He doesn't account for alternative or negative responses to the game, so the measurement tools he relies on - "critical acclaim," "commercial success," and "industry accolades" - skew his conclusions toward his desired results.

  • Experimenter bias - Cage wants to prove that his own work points the way forward as game design, and he relies on qualitative evidence, which is not a problem per se. Bias is introduced when the experimenter fails to account for the variability inevitable in qualitative research. The experimenter must show that he understands this and has done his best to lessen its impact or account for it in his conclusions. Cage doesn't do this. Heavy Rain succeeds because he says it does.

Having noted these biases, Cage's ideas still deserve a hearing. In a nutshell, here's what he said:

Heavy Rain is purposely different from games aimed primarily at teenagers and based on violence. Cage noted that even ostensibly 'mature' games put the player in the shoes of a good guy, who then proceeds as a mass murderer through the game. Furthermore, according to Cage, most games rely on over-familiar, repetitive mechanics. "We've based games on the same handful of paradigms for 30 years. ...How much meaning can there be if all we can do is shoot people and jump on platforms?"

Technology, says Cage, has progressed much faster than the concepts behind games. Heavy Rain was an effort to be more ambitious, and Cage outlined four primary goals the game tried to achieve:

  • Feature adult themes and tone
  • Tell a meaningful story
  • Offer varied interactions
  • Experiment with new paradigms.

"It's about freeing my players from the interface," Cage noted. Heavy Rain was designed to keep the player inside the game and develop an empathic relationship to its characters. To achieve this, Cage wanted to steer players away from experiential tropes like competition, aggression, and win/lose. He also wanted to avoid cutscenes. "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game."

Cage believes role-play reinforces involvement, and that's why Heavy Rain includes trivial tasks like shaving and drinking a glass of orange juice. Such activities glue the player to the character, according to Cage. When something important happens later, "it matters that you were in his shoes earlier" doing little things. This identification process is vital in creating an emotional connection. It makes later decisions more difficult and meaningful, Cage contends.

Cage described Heavy Rain's blend of old and new writing techniques. Classic elements like narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, and closure serve narrative games, but they aren't enough when player interaction is added to the mix. "Most games we call non-linear consist of linear missions we can do in whatever order we like." Heavy Rain offers the player the possibility of "bending stories" with fixed start, middle, and end points, but "narrative space" in between for meaningful player choices. These options don't result in win or lose outcomes; instead they present different outcomes the player feels responsible for producing.

"We tried to create varied and subtle emotions." For example, Cage and team wanted to impart a strong sense of discomfort when the player must disrobe as a female character in front of a man - a significant behavioral departure from what most games suggest to male players. "Identification is everything," noted Cage. "You don't project yourself into an empty shell."

Cage sees Heavy Rain as a major departure from other narrative games. "Most games are about challege. Heavy Rain is about the journey. We tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player." In Heavy Rain, failure is not bad or good. Players bear with the consequences of their actions, which creates a more immersive experience. "The journey is what really matters," noted Cage.

Late in his presentation, Cage began to lob bombshells. "Game mechanics are evil." "Mechanics are a limitation." "Forget video game rules. Mechanics, levels, bosses, ramping, points, inventory, ammo, platforms, missions, game over, cutscenes ARE THINGS FROM THE PAST."

He also offered some poignant observations. "Killing someone in a game is the most unimportant thing you've done in your life. ...Actions should have consequences." Cage believes we must present genuine moral dilemmas, not merely branching path options as 'choice.' "We didn't ask you if you wanted to be good or bad. Our goal is to ask you questions that are difficult to answer." Cage described meeting one player who, when faced with the choice to kill a man in the game, turned off his console for two weeks to think about it.

"Why are we the only medium in the world that is so empty?" Cage asked. Video games exist as a niche medium because the industry has made them so. If a solution to better storytelling in games is to be found, several realities must be faced, according to Cage.

  • Narrative and emotion are generally not considered important by developers.
  • Action and narrative are typically disconnected.
  • Most games are too long.
  • Mechanics are a problem.
  • Characterization is often inconsistent.
  • Creators are not empowered.

"We need to have the writer ruling development. He should be the god."

Cage believes story and gameplay should be designed simultaneously from the drawing board stage. "Anything can be play; any story can be told. I made a game about child abduction. As long as it's sincere and done with talent, it can be done. ...Make games for adults. Seriously."

Brainy Gamer Podcast - GDC '11 audio diary 1

Picture-9_0 This is part 1 of my GDC '11 audio diary. For more information on this project, read my previous post.

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