Thursday, February 26, 2009

Forum Games

The frustrating thing about being able to predict the weather is that part of that ability stems from the fact that I'm pretty much unable to participate in the medium.

I swear I'm not wrong about these games being worth a fortune.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ZA Critique: The Thing

Decided to adjust course a bit for this ZA Critique and talk about a game’s flaws instead of its virtues. One of the things I wish critics would engage with more is discussing why something is bad. Praising a game is typically not a tricky affair, you know when you’re having fun and you know when the game is doing what it already carefully explained it was going to do. Explaining why something is bad is much, much harder. You have to establish what the game was going for, at what tiny part of that process it breaks down, and then how that subsequently wrecks everything else. Scribbling off the generic “dull level design” or “same old concept” does nothing for either developer or fan. So often people just turn the game off when it begins to fail, they don't give it the time to fail fully and to its ultimate conclusion. Sometimes you find out that the only thing the game was really guilty of was not doing things the way you expected. Other times, you find out there's a reason you expect a game to behave a certain way.

The Thing is a survival horror game that leans on the sunny side of combat based. A very interesting infection game design is in the game, but it falls apart because of the linear nature of the infections. A cool mechanic for fear exists along with a system that makes you depend on your squad mates more than the average shooter. Unfortunately, it does not rely on this system to deliver the narrative and instead just shoves it all down your throat through cutscenes.

By no means do I think you have to play every game to completion. But you need to play it long enough to be able to explain yourself adequately to both fan, developer, and hater alike.

You have to develop a meaningful relationship with crappy games.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Video Games and Dreams

For those brave souls who trudged through the Samuel Johnson essay, at the end of it I said that perhaps the gimmick of cross-referencing critics had worn out its welcome. I picked up Carl Jung's autobiography and started digging through his other books that I'd already looked through.

Despite every game design theory I've ever read, I never really see people discuss what exactly their games are creating. Many of these people have brilliant theories on the mechanics of the medium, grand ideas on how to engage the player and keep them playing, but never much on what this is producing. You can find endless debates on what games are mechanically or how they're not stories, etc. They know how to build the machine and they know when it's working, but when you ask them what it's creating they just give you words like fun, challenge, fiero, etc.

I'm not really satisfied with this.

A while back I posted an essay about a very popular game and how it all connected back to Joseph Campbell's monomyth. Campbell's ideas are essentially Jung applied to art and mythology very closely but with certain key variations. The funny thing about that essay is that no one disagreed with the idea that Monkey Island is a series of archetypes and symbolic acts. Popmatters is always a pretty quiet place when it comes to comments but the essay made the link rounds and I followed a few conversations on it. A game that popular and not one person is bothered by me saying something that crazy? That can't be a coincidence.

The more I follow Jung and dream theories, the more I'm convinced it isn't. If archetypes and symbols from psychoanalysis are an acceptable explanation to people for what they are experiencing in a game, that means the subconscious is at work. Which means dream symbolism and the unconscious are at work. Which means a whole helluva lot of other things are going on when you play a video game. Google the average game design graph, this one is a good example, and you see a series of loops and circles with all points leading back to a central focus. That's a mandala, a religious tool for helping people meditate and enter trances. What else are we doing in games but entering trances?

I don't have any illusions about the reaction this research is going to have. I'm taking my time and making sure that when I publish this paper it's air tight. I'm reading Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, which obviously I disagree with in terms of what games are generating but he came the closest to explaining the emotions going on with people in his lecture. I've gotten in touch with several dream analysts and will start brushing up on their work as well. It'll get posted when it's ready.

And fortunately for me, other people have already started noticing this. In particular, a psychologist from Canada named Gackenbach has been doing studies on the same connection I've been making.

You can find out more about her research here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Game Explanations for Beginners

We live in exciting times. Slate, of all websites, has posted a somewhat accurate criticism of the development process of the game industry. Although I'd point out that people have been saying this for 4 years now, the article is refreshing in that they use hard data to back up the old arguments. Spending 100 million dollars to make a game that, despite being one of the top selling games in history, only produces 300 million in profit is not an acceptable profit margin.

I'm all for game developers adopting the old studio system of 2 week movies, and I along with several others have made this argument. What I find myself criticizing is the final solution of making more games like Portal. Making a brand new, fully functional and fun game design is not easy. Much better, in my opinion, to focus on expansions and DLC. The Lost and the Damned may not be Portal, but you've got a reliable pool of people who already own the game and would be up for more story. Given how many games will be releasing DLC this year, along with numerous indie games, I think we'll be seeing a bit of both models. We live in exciting times.

But enough of all this serious pants nonsense.

Here's something completely different.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Epic Fail

The last time I was in New York City, I was pretty much broken. Working two different jobs, a travel agency and a publisher, had finally convinced me that I wasn’t going to get decent work with a liberal arts degree. Of a list of 5 jobs I’d always wanted to try, lawyer was the only one left on the list. 2 years later and I’m not even sure what I think of that one anymore. Still, it's good to be in better shape than the last time I was here.

Most of the trip was friends and family, but I did manage to meet one or two other writers and they were great to talk with. Making yourself into a brand, dealing with rowdy fans, and our collective gamble that yes, this is all going pay off some day. On another note, I once again made an ass of myself to a couple of cool people. I sent out a lot of Twitter Direct Messages to people to see if they wanted to grab a beer with me. The problem is that I usually rely on e-mail to notify me of when I’ve gotten a DM, which is apparently not working anymore. When I flipped my laptop open on Sunday, several messages were there that I wasn’t aware of saying they’d love to hang out. Given how much I’ve been rambling about checking out the city, I’m pretty sure this made me look like a rare kind of mega asshole. I sent apologies to everyone but again, I’m really sorry to have missed these folks. Considering that last week I missed Comic Con because I scheduled my flight on the wrong weekend, this is slowly making me wonder if this isn’t some kind of destined curse or something. I suppose the perk is that I was most definitely taking a break from professionalism. Being cooped up in a library all day breeds a special form of insanity that only shows the symptoms on Friday nights. The best parts of me are in my writing anyhow.

I also managed to visit ‘The New Museum’ in midtown. I told my friend I wanted to see something that pushed my definition of art and she obliged. It was interesting to me how much video game ideas already exist in so many forms. What I constantly saw in the Contemporary Art there was the desire to create a sense of place. It’s much the same thing that video games are trying to do. One exhibit was simply a group of experts versed in the Iraq War. They would sit and talk with anyone who wanted to know what was going on or hear about the experience firsthand. To experience it in a much more personal and real way. Another was a large video of a single shot of the rain forest. The camera just sat there while the volume, which is cranked to painful levels, bursts your ears with bird sounds. There was a huge sign explaining how it was commenting on all of these cultural trends. Arguments about how cameras can create a sense of place and the artist trying to show this through a lack of unauthorized motion. Another exhibit was depicting a hypothetical scene from the future, Israeli refugees in 2048. It wasn’t really a political statement so much as it played with Holocaust imagery in a unique way. The rows of beds and toys were all modern, all recognizable. You could walk around and see into this strange world that echoed one that has now become alienated for a younger generation. What struck me was that these are all things that games have their own solutions to creating. Many of them are quite simple and have been done before.

There was also a refreshing reminder of why games are my favorite past time. Visiting someone for 5 days that you haven’t seen in 2 years meant finding something to do after the update conversations were over. So it was great to plow through Gears of War 2 with my friend on the downtime. Co-Op games like that or Army of Two are rapidly becoming one of my favorite genres personally. The way they make the activity engaging for two people and generate conversation is always fun.

Anyhow, it’s good to have a change of scenery and get some proper Yankee cold air. It was good seeing old friends and to talk shop with some folks. Sorry about the twitter weirdness, learned my lesson with that one. We’ll be returning to our regularly scheduled “twittering as a study break” pacing shortly.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Art Game Jabber

I'm on vacation in New York right now. If you get an e-mail from me talking about taking over the world and some scheme I have for deregulating the Swiss Economy, disregard it. This City always brings out a weird vibe in me. Like, more than usual weird.

Zapped a quick few thoughts at Popmatters on an art game I just found out about. Normally wouldn't link to something this small, but I was sorta surprised at its clarity. I'm not done arguing about The Graveyard yet.

Clicketh On.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vapor Culture

Edit 2/12/09: A few comments have reminded me that like any claims about writing, this shouldn't be taken as the only kind of valid writing. A good website needs to host a huge variety of styles to to keep up the best of both ways to generate traffic.

I try to avoid using statcounter. I had to install the program to this blog to check out a hypothesis I had on traffic and links and now it sits there, tempting me. The hellish quest to find personal validation through people reading your blog is about as fulfilling as trying to win an argument on the internet. I don’t have to take the numbers personally since most of this stuff just links to my stuff on Popmatters, but it still generates a really bad habit in me: living from post to post.

Since I don’t really have any constraints on what I write, I decided a while ago to test out a combination of ideas about writing on the internet in the long term. The first is something Alan Moore said that I still puzzle over: our culture is transforming from a liquid into vapor. To summarize the analogy, centuries ago information and knowledge was both so rare and required so much work that specialization was necessary. A person who was a doctor had studied medicine all their lives, a scholar studied a particular field, and so on. They didn’t really overlap, except for philosophers who dabbled in a bit of everything. The printing press, combined with urban areas that enabled distribution of documents, began to shift culture from being a solid into a liquid. Ideas from alien fields could be mixed because someone could just read a book on the subject and relate to it. What Moore was commenting on was that due to the internet, that cross-pollination is beginning to occur much more rapidly. Just look at a website like Boing Boing: science post, literature post, everything should be free post, law, theory, science, gardening, funny video, steam punk. Whereas people would create an organized journal to discuss and espouse these ideas, the journal is now combining multiple fields. Obviously newspapers did this all before but it was liquid then: everything was broken into sections and they didn’t overlap. On the internet, the information is zapped through quick blurbs and twitters. We’re absorbing all of it, science, art, philosophy, in one big flow instead of organized sections.

The second was an observation made by Amazon’s CEO on Web 2.0 culture: you don’t advertise a product, you create a system that can fulfill any request. In application to writing on the internet, it means you stop treating your writing like a product. Most people still do it the old way, writing out an interesting story and then watching the clicks. Whether for money or personal validation, treating your writing like a product basically boils down to writing something that will generate the most response and interest from people at that precise moment. The problem with this approach is that it still relies on our culture operating like a liquid. You are still presuming that people are accessing your writing out of curiosity or common interest, that you have enticed or appealed to them somehow.

Let’s go through a hypothetical. I want to know about Prince of Persia. I google it. Ubisoft’s page, Wikipedia, IGN, IMDB, etc. etc. What are the reasons you don’t click on those links? Ubisoft’s website is just going to be commercial fluff. Wikipedia is something I personally use, but it’s unreliable because it can’t be held accountable for errors and its shallow. IGN is commercial fluff, IMDB is useful but limited in scope. The solution to this is obviously to narrow your search but…how? You google Prince of Persia and then add a connector that’s usually a trusted source. Prince of Persia and The Escapist, Prince of Persia and Edge Magazine, etc. The opening for the writer, for the entrepreneur, is in the connector term. The habit you are locking into with vapor culture is realizing that the people who live post to post are going to get lost in the long game. You can’t possibly keep up with every news event, every game, every film that comes out. What you can do instead is create a body of writing whose individual components can be accessed at any time and stand independently. When someone who is reading a science essay wants to bark a reference about a movie essay which depends on a philosophical argument, they are going to do this exact process. You have to become a trusted resource, not a day to day product.

There are pros and cons to writing like this. In order to make sure my stuff is going to age well, I typically build up a huge collection of posts and then let them cook. What seemed brilliant 2 months ago will often not seem quite so sharp when I decide it’s time to post. Almost all of my essays get overhauled and repaired with new info and better sources when I look at them 2 months later. Sometimes I’ll do a complete 180 and change my opinion by picking up on a flaw in my thinking. Writer’s Block is also not really a problem for me because I always have something to post. I’ll often go a week or two without writing one, focusing on other projects, having a social life, or just getting out of the house for a bit. It also means I can juggle school with writing part-time.

The problem, as you’ve probably guessed, is that I have no idea if any of this is going to work. People may change the way they access information in the future or dinosaurs might take over the planet. All I’ve done is connect a few dots on how people currently consume information and started writing in a way that supports this method. I try to pick topics that will also be interesting to a person years from now, but if I was psychic I’d go buy a lottery ticket. I also doubt I’ll see much money from it but like I said, you can do this on top of a job. And finally…this is going to take a very long time. My plan is to operate like this until I finish school (May 2010) and then make a decision about how successful this approach has been. The more I watch the statcounter figures though, the more I’m seeing people access my older stuff at random while my day to day work stays at a steady pace.

In other words, I’m writing to establish a higher quality long tail and then banking on the notion that THIS, provided I put enough energy into it, will become more viable than writing post to post.

A great deal of this thinking comes from law school and the techniques used in the stuff I read all day. A Judge, when writing a solution to a complex problem, fully expects people to be reading that case decades from then because many courts will still consider it the definitive method for solving a legal issue. As I was reading the other critics for the trilogy of articles on game criticism, I also began to realize that I was approaching their writing in the same way. I read Pauline Kael’s review of Star Wars because I wanted to know what she thought of it. I read Samuel Johnson’s essay on Julius Caesar because it’s my favorite Shakespeare play and Johnson usually has something interesting to say. What I’m getting at is that if culture is now overlapping to such a degree that everything is mixing together constantly, you’ve got to make your own work more solid and accessible than ever before. You’ve got to quit trying to keep up with the storm and instead make a safe harbor from it.

ZA Critique: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

This was a tricky game to write about. There are so many different things going on at so many different levels that I could easily write a different essay that talks about it in a totally different manner. The relationship with the Gods, which the game design makes you feel small & inferior towards. The careful use of historical events like the Iraq War or Charlemagne's downfall. This piece was originally 2200 words before I slashed and trimmed it down to 1500 or so.

I decided to focus on the creation of a legacy in the game and how it tweaks one of the generic standards in games. You always have this ultimate badass character who has killed and smashed their way through hordes of enemies. That works fun for the game design but's problematic. Honestly, as corny as Halo 3 or Gears of War can be with their gushing "You're sooooo badasss!", it's the only thing that would make sense in the story. If you met the dude who tore through hundreds of aliens and took down two of their leaders with his bare hands, you'd probably gush a bit too. Unfortunately, this is still really corny.

Eternal Darkness instead has you play as 12 different people throughout history. They get killed, smashed, and tortured in every manner of awesome throughout the game. The game maintains the sense of progress and development that games rely on by letting the book act as an accumulation of your powers instead of a character. The result of this interesting design is a much more plausible story.

On a slight note about the sanity meter...I took a swipe at it in one of my goofy photo comics. Given how much praise it receives, particularly from people I admire, I decided to chop out the section where I criticized it. For me, I already knew about this game design when I started playing. I instead treated it as a novelty, dropping my sanity to zero and then watching the freakiness. Every time something insane started happening, I'd just remind myself it's the sanity meter and go on. My criticism was basically that the thing doesn't really work because I'm still in control of it. I can just heal my sanity and then none of that stuff happens. Given how much the sanity effects revolve around me losing control (surrounded by zombies, my saves getting deleted, controller unplugs), I thought it was kinda backwards that I could control whether this was happening or not.

But like I said, I cut it because ultimately the complaint seemed petty. Clint Hocking asked in a Brainy Game thread a while back if it was possible to spoil a game design.

Here's another example.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mushroom Men

Damn I wanted to like this game. The one time I break my personal policy and get sucked into hype, it bites me in the ass and I have to be honest about it.

The great art and music in this game are applied in interesting ways, but like the review says, it isn't done in a way that makes the game particularly endearing. You have these really cool mushroom people, but they never say much. You have this great game world, but you never really do much in it except push buttons and hop around. I suppose the lesson, if there even is one here, is that you've still got to put on a show once you build a great set.

The soundtrack really is great though.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Emergent Music Games

There are literally tons of music games coming out this year, thanks to Guitar Hero and Rock Band convincing everyone that lightning does indeed strike twice. The runaway success of Audiosurf also helped, leading to a lot of the upcoming games gambling on innovation. Ones that adjust the level to the mp3 you picked, new ways of mashing buttons to reproduce songs, and hopefully the KORG DS-10 will see an expansion soon. Given how many damn buttons are on the average controller these days, it’s a wonder someone hasn’t tried to just turn it into a musical instrument.

I rounded up a bunch of music games and broke them into two categories: linear and emergent. Then I focus on how instructive these can be for crafting non-linear stories and responsive games. It was a bit like the tarot card essay in the end. People say that you can’t tell a good story that’s non-linear and my response is that pretty much all the good ones are non-linear. Does it matter what order you tell the events of The Iliad? The Bible? Technically, the order or sequence of events is the bullshit part of the story to begin with, an artificial concept imposed to make it easier to follow. So I keep noticing examples where people produce stories on their own from utterly random systems and just point them out to people as constant proof that linearity is not a necessary component.

The piece actually ended up not going as far as I wanted it to. Being aware of your limits has a lot more to do with imposing them than any kind of self-awareness and in this case I don’t know enough about music to finish the job with this essay. I can explain the broad stuff that’s occurring but the nitty gritty will have to be handled by someone who can compose this stuff.

It ought to get the ball rolling at least.