Friday, January 30, 2009


Surveying the aftermath of the Halo 3 piece, I thought I’d do some thinking about what went right and wrong. With the exception of one commenter, most people did not accuse me of being an idiot or not playing the game. Several of them even agreed with the analogy of ranges and rock, paper, scissors, but pointed out that it wasn’t really a governing set of laws. I’ve flipped off comment notice for the thing out of principle. I’ll usually respond 3 to 5 times to defend a piece depending on how much people aren’t following me or making faulty counter-arguments, but eventually I have to throw in the towel and accept that I fucked something up.

The first thing I should’ve done is define skill. There are about 2 definitions going on in the piece itself with everyone else applying their own conception as well. The point I was trying to make was that when two people are at the same range, then it’s not really a matter of domination. You’re just shooting at each other and it all depends on who lands the most bullets first. Halo 3 is particularly interesting in this regard because headshots do significantly more damage BUT are not insta-kills. Tagging someone in the head will drop their shields faster than the body. Any definition of skill is subjective to the game and player, but in this sense I meant it purely boiled down to your ability to make headshots over your opponent.

The second thing I should’ve done was dedicate a paragraph to professional and competitive play. The inspiration for the analysis was basically why I don’t like Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer but love Halo 3’s. Dedicating a paragraph to the fact that I’m typically playing the game with friends while drinking beer would’ve explained where I was coming from instead of just alluding to it. However, because I’m trying to describe the overall experience the multiplayer generates, it’s not enough to just discuss the casual end of the spectrum. For the record I read a couple of gamefaqs on team play and handling the Battle Rifle competently, but that’s pretty alien to how I play Halo 3. I hate the Battle Rifle and typically work as a two man team with another friend so the split screen doesn’t get too obnoxious.

An alternative would be to do the section where I explain the intention of the game design and then dedicate a paragraph to how players break it. I’m not very good with a sniper rifle (I’m getting a lot better thanks to Far Cry 2) but I’d have trouble nailing the broad side of a barn with one without the scope zoomed. I went onto Shotty-Snipers via a friend’s account to see higher ranked people playing and sure enough, a lot of those guys can tag you with the sniper rifle when you get in close. Another commenter pointed out that with sufficient practice the Battle Rifle can contain Medium to Long Range so well that you don’t need to worry about close range. Anyone with a power sword is going to get dropped well before they get close. Neither me nor my friend play at this level, but it goes back to the other paragraph about studying hardcore play along with the casual set. The reason I didn’t include a lot of this or go into specifics was that it all starts to become a strategy guide instead of the game experience. My original solution to skimming technique was to contrast the whole thing to Call of Duty 4 but in retrospect I think that might have been a dead end. The COD 4 players told me I wasn’t explaining that game properly so that flawed understanding ended up junking the Halo 3 rundown.

Finally, starting the article off with a few glib comments about the plot probably wasn’t a good idea. As someone who liked the plot of Halo 2, part 3 was a broken and disjointed game in my opinion. Each level reeks of being designed independently of the other, so there’s no flow or pacing to the experience. But that’s an essay for another day.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this initial attempt. I wasn’t cussed out too much and there was enough positive feedback that I think I’m getting close. At this stage, I’m pleased with how I write about linear single-player games. Multiplayer was the next beast I wanted to tackle and I think I’ve got a better idea for the next time it comes up. I’m still scratching my head on how to handle something like Fallout 3 or Mass Effect, but I think the key might lie in multiplayer games. These are finite systems that ought to be separable from the experience they are generating. If there is anything else you think I missed or noticed yourself from the piece, I’m all ears.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ZA Critique: Halo 3

I don't think I really appreciated Halo 3 until all my friends with Xbox360's switched to Call of Duty 4 as the game of choice. Whereas I never missed a chance to poke fun at the plot or refer to everything as 'nerf guns' in Halo 3, COD 4's style of play left my sorry ass out on the curb. You couldn't play if you'd had too many beers, you couldn't play with people who were better than you, and technically I couldn't really play the game online, period.

After a while I decided to figure out what the hang-up was. It ultimately boiled down to the fact that Halo 3's design accommodates people with low skill by providing some insta-kill situations. Certain types of weapons immediately trump other types of weapons while others break even. This system has been polished to perfection.

I borrowed a quote from Iroquis Pliskin on the topic, stitched together a few analogies, and then found a way to consider randomized dominance a perk instead of some huge flaw.

Something tells me a lot of fans aren't going to see this the same way.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Crayon Physics Deluxe

A lot of interesting discussions have already gone on about this game, whether it's Brainy Gamer or PixelVixen707, the argument goes like this. People love it because it's an open game that you can do whatever you want. People don't like it because it's an open game where you rarely feel inclined to do much at all.

That's a really important problem in a free form game because as emergent narratives become steadily more popular, you've got to grasp what is creating the incentives to generate a personal narrative. Fallout 3 apparently pulls it off, with many people praising the game while denouncing the main storyline. When do you ever hear about people praising the sidequests of a game? Contrast that to Far Cry 2, which I enjoy immensely but have to admit that you get stuck in a rut. AK-47, Grenade Launcher, and submachine gun have been my weapon stock for a while now. Obviously the games are working with very different game designs, but is that indicative of the FPS not working well as an immersive game or that RPG's are the best game designs for emergent narratives?

I ended up comparing this to the whole Gordian Knot problem with Alexander the Great. You can either solve the puzzle with the sword or by carefully solving the problem. The dilemma, both in the story and in games, is when the reward is the same for either solution.

The refreshing thing about Crayon Physics Deluxe is that it captures the essence of the problem these AAA titles are facing in a totally different setup. It's a physics puzzle game where you can do anything and as a consequence many players get stuck in a rut using the same tricks to solve every puzzle. They get to the end, feel a little hollow inside, and can only fool around without the same goal completion to get much out of the game. How do you get the player to use their freedom for something interesting without it feeling like work?

I'm not sure this has all the answers, but it's a start.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mother 3

I picked this game up after hearing Dan Bruno rave about it on the Brainy Gamer podcast.

It's quite good because it goes into creating an intentional ludonarrative dissonance and using that to communicate an effective satire on gamers. Brainy Gamer did something about this but I can't find the post, the notion that one should not just arbitrarily assume it is bad when it is occurring. I suppose we can label this game Exhibit A in that argument.

Because the game uses so many health boosts, tricks, and ways to warp the system in conjunction with a hefty difficulty curve it was a JRPG that I ended up seriously taking advantage of. Even the sound beat system is totally irrelevant to the plot and must be relied upon heavily, a skill that has no meaning in-game yet is essential to play. Where the satire comes in is that the plot has several sad moments that dissonate (is this even a word?) with this whole attitude. What makes it a satire is that the dialogue makes fun of you for treating everything like a game so much.

It's interesting because it's still distinctly Earthbound, it's still poking fun at JRPG's, but now the butt of the joke is you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Samuel Johnson and Video Games

The third critic that we’re going to sift through and borrow some ideas from is Samuel Johnson. Of the three thus far, he’s an interesting person because he doesn’t actually like critics. Or academia, or scholars, or really even the idea of the written word doing much except instruct or delight. The fact that he has earned the honor of being the greatest literary critic of his time is because Johnson, while putting together a dictionary, several philosophical treatises, and a discourse on English law ALSO wrote criticism on Shakespeare and numerous poets. He’s a strong example of what Adler was praising in critics in her burn session on Pauline Kael, the idea that a good critic handles a variety of topics and mediums. That they become famous for their work in one medium in particular is incidental, their engaging with a variety of topics is what made them be so innovative in the first place. Johnson is constantly applying political ideas to art, artistic ideas to politics, and cross-pollinating so many schools of thought that it’s no shock he was able to surpass his peers. If you take one thing away from Johnson, realize that he’s drawing on wisdom from numerous sources and not just one.

For the purposes of this essay I’ve decided to focus on the columns he wrote for several magazines in London over a period of years. After reading several reviews and his annotations on Shakespeare, it becomes obvious that he is dealing with an artistic culture that is wholly alien to the one we see today. Honestly, when you’ve got someone discussing the merits of writing a “realistic” novel you realize this is a person whose contribution to culture has long been masked by countless people building on top of it. Just so there’s some appreciation of it though, during Johnson’s life a type of poetry known as pastoralism was really popular. This was an area of literature I avoided like the plague so I wouldn’t be shocked if this was grossly generalizing, but I read enough Pope and Grey to get the basics. It’s a celebration of the simple life. Of being on the farm, not being concerned with materialism, and using elaborate metaphors about nature to communicate a sense of beauty. Ignoring the fact that living on a farm is far from being free of worry, one of the comments Johnson makes is that anybody can sit in a room and write the stuff. The realistic novel, on the other hand, requires real world experiences. He writes, “The task of our present writers is very different; it requires together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and accurate observation of the living.” He feels that this genre has a much higher standard applied to it because any reader is going to have a strong opinion about what the book is saying. With pastoralism there is rarely much to criticize except grammar or structure because it’s all fantasy anyways, with the realistic novel you can actually engage on a personal level. It’s all very obvious to someone today, but back then Johnson was championing a genre that was hardly so secure in people’s minds.

An interesting observation Johnson makes is how exactly variations in opinion on art even occurs. How do two people who watch the same play walk away with totally different views? We all know this happens but it’s interesting to see him explore the mechanics of why, “Every man who is called to give his opinion of a performance decides upon the same principle; he suffers himself to form expectations, and then is angry at his disappointment. He lets his imagination rove at large, and wonders that another, equally unconfined in the boundless ocean of possibility, takes a different course.” It’s that notion of expectations that really strikes at the core of where the critic can make their biggest error with a work. We all know the premise of a game well before we play it. What makes our assessment become potentially unfair is when we complain excessively that the work does not resemble how we envision that premise should play out.

That’s something we deal with in video games constantly. I recently picked up the History Channel’s Civil War game and have found the whole thing a huge disappointment. This is a period of history I love and yet the game has a completely different take on it than the one in my head. Gone are the banjoes and punk bluegrass I’d fill my personal Civil War game with, replaced with a shooter that tries to be Call of Duty with bad southern accents. The game becomes even more problematic because weapons from that era clearly aren’t handled the same way as they do in other FPS titles. As soon as I start playing I run to cover, pop up, unload my musket, and then realize that not only is the gun inaccurate, it takes forever to reload it. The game is instead a large exercise in beating the crap out of people with a rifle butt, which I suppose is similar to how many of the battles were fought but that’s hardly worth making an entire game out of. How do you go about saying something is bad and not just because it failed to meet your expectations? As much as I try to separate my vision of what a Civil War game should be, it’s equally misguided to claim that the game is actually good on its own terms. Johnson explains the distinction, “It ought to be the first endeavor of any writer to distinguish nature from custom, of that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established; that he may neither violate essential principles by a desire of novelty, nor tear himself from the attainment of beauties within his view by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact.” Swap writer with designer and you can see the applications. The ideal when measuring any work art is just figuring out what are the conventions that are there for a reason and what are the ones subject to change. Being open to a game whose guns have slow reload times is one thing, that’s just custom being broken. Having a game where the only alternative is swinging the rifle around like a bat is breaking the basic appeal of doing an FPS in the first place.

I said earlier that Johnson didn’t particularly like critics and it goes back to why he liked realistic novels over pastoralism. What happens with a critic is that when you study an artist or medium, you naturally gravitate towards the articles and ideas you personally like. They comport with your view of the work and what it should be doing. As you continue to accumulate knowledge and comprehension, you also develop a base level of knowledge that the writers you enjoy also have. The consequence is that when this critic or scholar finally descends upon the world they discover they aren’t particularly good at communicating this knowledge to others. For starters, not everyone has been reading the same stuff so they don’t know what all the terms or preconceptions are that the critic is using. People have also been reading different essays in general and have their own ideas about the medium. Johnson explains, “A ready man is made by conversation. He that buries himself among his manuscripts…and wears out his days and nights in perpetual research and solitary meditation, is too apt to lose in his elocution what he adds to his wisdom, and when he comes into the world, to appear overloaded with his own notions, like a man armed with weapons which he cannot wield.” It’s not enough to just post ideas or write long essays on games. You’ve got to talk about them and hash the ideas out.

This touches on something that came up on a Brainy Gamer post the other day when Abbott was criticizing the general state of gaming forums. He points out that the general source of most idiotic behavior in forums is the invalidation game, of proving one another wrong and devolving into personal attacks. As many people in the comments noted, so many of these websites are so noxious that they actively avoid them. I’m not proposing you get involved with a ‘Wii Suckzor’ thread (though it’s funny to drop in a rational and well written opinion just to spook them) but just remember you’ve got to have an actual conversation about the stuff you’re writing. Part of how you keep an idea you’ve developed in action is by applying it to new situations and continuing to explore it. A critical approach, idea, or sense of style isn’t going to be communicated in just one essay. All of the critics we’ve examined so far have written for years and out of those mountains of work we’re just plucking out their best and brightest. It isn’t going to happen up in an ivory tower and it isn’t going to happen in a day. Johnson proposes, “The chief art of learning, as Locke has observed, is to attempt but little at a time. The widest excursions of the mind are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty fabrics of science are formed by the continued accumulation of single propositions.” Whatever your vision for videogames, the way you fulfill that vision is by recognizing that it’s all just a series of tiny steps.

So as Johnson sums it all up nicely, “To read, write, and converse in due proportions is the business of a man of letters.” A good critic to Johnson has an understanding of what’s conventional and what’s naturally required in a medium, an ability to adapt your ideas, and the willingness to keep plugging away until you reach your goals. His final bit of advice comes from the relationship we have with those goals themselves. I’ve thrown around a lot of loose terms like ideas and theories in this essay because Johnson had a fairly narrow view of what any one person can accomplish. He use the Royal Society of Philosophers as example, they had enormous hopes of changing humanity and intellectual pursuits, only to be crushed when the miseries of life still persisted. People who stop and say, “What have I done with my work? My life?” seldom find answers they are happy about. We are all very little beings in Johnson’s view, better off wishing for diligence instead of power, finding fault with ourselves rather than the reality of life. The final complaint he has of scholars, critics, or any thinker is that they inevitably feel inadequate despite their accomplishments. He proposes that people take a different approach to evaluating their life’s work: “He that has improved the virtue or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.” That seems like a reasonable goal to work towards for any critic.

I think I’m going to take a bit of advice from Johnson and draw on a different source for the next essay. After reading 3 very different kinds of critics for 3 different mediums, I think it’s time to change gears. Several recent essays sitting on the backburner have gotten me reading Carl Jung again and I’m beginning to think he’s worth digging into more deeply. The more I play old games and discuss them, the more I start to wonder what exactly they should be doing with their curious form of communication. Jung, who used dream analysis extensively, strikes me as someone who will have some thoughts on what our actions represent when they are not actions we do in the real world. If games truly are just a series of interesting choices, it might be useful to start explaining what those choices mean.

Abstract Symbolism in Games

Ambiguity is one of those things that most video games either totally ignore or wield like a baseball bat. You either have characters that talk too much or ones that never talk at all. The whole appeal of not having everything spelled out in absolute detail is that there is room for imagination. There is room for additional details about the story or character that are inconsequential but the person can add themselves.

Unfortunately, like its uncertain nature, there isn't really a set of guidelines or rules when it comes to ambiguity or abstractions. It is, by its very nature, up to personal tastes. So I figured I'd instead just talk about one particular kind of ambiguity that's going to the wayside lately.

The pleasures of 8-bit art and its symbolic nature.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

ZA Critique: Braid

Well, I finally got sick of tweaking this article and decided to take the plunge. I swear I've fooled and changed this thing around so many times that I feel like someone was pressing the rewind button while I was writing it. To be honest, Braid has been written about so extensively that I didn't really have much worth adding. I don't have any grand notions about what I'm doing with these things, to me it's just important to illuminate an interesting accomplishment that might have gone unrecognized in a game. Of all the the traits Braid has, I don't think lack of recognition is one of them.

Given the author's habit of correcting or debating with folks in their analysis of the game, I'm also forced to admit that this isn't exactly my kind of art. To me, after years of dealing with literary analysis, when you publish something it's out of your hands. With a novel people's attention phases in and out, details shift in importance, and you can almost always assume the person will have formulated their own idea about what it meant. I find that wonderful. Like making a waking dream or subconscious experience that thousands can share. With video games, one of the things that appeals to me is that they are even more inclusive than a book. There is even more opportunity in videogames because the player contributes so much to the experience themselves.

So, put another way, I'm of the camp that thinks it's a good thing when someone reads your work and finds something you didn't put in it. It means that even this person, this unintended audience, is resonating with your art. Or as Cormac McCarthy once said when asked about the meaning of one of his books, "I just write the things. You're the ones who read them."

Which is all just a fancy way of saying f*** it if I'm "wrong".

Of all the things I feel like people ignored in Braid, the writing either was ignored or punished for being obtuse. I don't think that's fair considering Blow was making a point about time and comprehension. Unfortunately, explaining what a writer is doing when they distort pace of understanding means explaining what they're doing when they are thinking linearly.

So the piece ended up being more about writing and how Braid is playing with that.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Edmund McMillen & Indie Games Fest

Got a twofer for ya on this one.

The indie games website has posted their favorites from 2008 along with the more discerning (and wonderfully shorter) list of indie games from the IGF. They all have some really cool stuff but in particular I was glad to see The Graveyard is catching eyes. Like I said in that other write-up on the game, I get why people aren't into it. But the potential behind people devoting time and energy into making a single interactive vignette or "painting" as the IGF called it really interests me.

And hey, speaking of Indie, one of the nominees (Coil) was made with the help of Edmund McMillen, who has released a collection of the past ten years of his work. It was a bit odd doing a write-up on this one since there were technically a dozen or so games on the disc. Some are too difficult to be considered fair by my standards while others are well worth the ten bucks alone. Meat Boy in particular is a good bit of fun. Instead, what interested me was what his art style consistently brought to each game and how that played out by adding a sort of gross-tenderness. It was something that played significantly in Braid and I don't think his designs for that game should go unappreciated. I decided to not post a score with this one since I wasn't really pitching the games themselves but the person and his work.

It's so rare to get to chat about an individual in this medium, I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Gaming Trends for 2009

Alright, alright. Breaks over, back to work. Every Tuesday a new BPM goes up, I'll try to get something extra in on Thursdays when I can.

I enjoy plotting and studying trends like I do picking just the right moment to jump in a platformer. You've got to be in the right spot and you've got to do it at just the right time. It's also winter (or what passes for winter in SC, I was sun bathing yesterday) which is when I usually do most of my planning for the upcoming year. This is the basic gist of what I'm seeing right now, but obviously there's a huge margin of error in this kind of thinking.

So it's always best to think broadly when you first start.

Classes start next week and I've organized my courses for next semester to be the hardest ones I will ever take. There's not really a way around this, next year I have to start prepping for the BAR and god forbid, actually have a job. Lawyers, by their very nature, are always assuming the s*** has hit the fan and another turd is coming any moment. In this kind of economic climate most are cutting employees that aren't absolutely necessary. At the top of that list is "Law Students to do all my Research." I think I might apply to another video game developer just to savor a little variety in the rejection letter.

Gah, enough bitching. 2008 was a good year and I have a good, albeit odd, feeling for 2009. Hell has frozen over and I now own a used Xbox360. I've got a gamertag but I'm not sure how much I'm going to use it. Halo 3 is more fun split-screen, which I discovered during one awful play session on Valhalla. Working on Half-life 2 for a ZA along with Kane & Lynch. Got a long list of articles I want to write and the general never-ending pile of games I need to play. The Samuel Johnson reading is going well but I think I'll only get an essay or two out of him. Kael and Bangs were a bounty of thinking that could relate back to our own cultural plight, Johnson is stuck dealing with a culture who thinks poetry should only delight or instruct. He has his moments though.

Once I'm in the library I'll be reading 24/7 and will wander around the blogs to take a break. Looking forward to seeing what's out there.