Friday, August 31, 2012

Brief Housekeeping Note + Buy a Thing

Sorry for the quiet period. Nothing in my gaming life has piqued my interest lately, so I haven't had much to say. That being said, I just re-played Knights of the Old Republic II, so I've got a few different essays inspired by that that are percolating.

On a less boring note, a short story of mine will be published soon in the awesome-looking new anthology The Way We Sleep. The story is really short, but it's one of my favorite things I've written, and I'm super excited that something I created is going to be in a book with work from people like Maria Bamford, a softer world's Joey Comeau and Emily Horne, and super-awesome science writer Mary Roach (plus all the other amazing people involved in this book, seriously, look at that contributor's list).

If you're interested, the book is available for pre-order here for $14, free shipping in the US.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mass Relays, Magic Wands, and My Life as a Teenage Witch

It's my second week at Iris Academy. Things are going well so far; my roommates are nice, my magic classes are going well (even the ones taught by grumpy professor Totally-Not-Severus-Snape). But today, before class, all the freshman are lead to an assembly, where the senior class president addresses us and informs us that this week is Freshman Initiation.

"Fine," I think. A way to meet more students, find the beginning points for some relationships. Should be fun. Then an older boy approaches and claims me as "his" freshman, and I immediately bristle. It's not that he's got blue skin and wings; this is a magical school, after all, and I'm no racist. No, it's the way he talks. A mixture of dominance (technically in line with the whole hazing aspect of the Initiation) and conspiratoriality, a juxtaposition of barking orders and assurances that he's the only person I can trust. It feels, to me, like the opening salvos of something that could turn very unpleasant.

(Click on pictures to view them fullsize)

If I was actually a 15-year-old witch, maybe this line of bullshit would work on me. Luckily, I'm only pretending to be one (within the context of Magical Diary, a time management/visual novel game from Hanako Games). And my young witch, Lady Grantham, has absolutely no time for this manipulative crap. I refuse to take his hand to help me up, and when that provokes him into a commanding rage, I walk out, tell the professor I'm not participating in Initiation, and move on with my education. I never see him again, spending my year romancing the class troublemaker-with-a-heart-of-gold and trying to stay out of trouble with Not-Snape.

The choice to walk away from Initiation was, in terms of the game's structure, a huge one. The relationship with Damien (the boy in question) makes up a major portion of one of the game's paths (to the point where he stands prominently in the very center of the title screen). By washing my hands of the entire thing, I cut myself out of a large portion of content. So the question is: even with a successfully completed school year, can I be said to have "completed" Magical Diary if I HAVEN'T experienced Damien's path? I paid money for this game; am I cheating myself if I don't go back and play through as the kind of person who WOULD submit to Damien, if it means receiving more of the total story?

It's a problem inherent to any game in which the player makes meaningful choices - what about the road not taken? Part of the strength of games like the Mass Effect series is that they allow players to craft a world that's meaningfully "theirs" - my doofily good-natured, neck-bearded Paragon Commander Shepard has very little in common with your tough-as-nails, Earth supremacist Renegade FemShep - they have different backgrounds, different military careers, and they've made hundreds of different choices that have shaped the universe around them over the course of the games, pruning story branches and eliminating possiblities as they go. And this is exciting, because those choices are my primary means of interaction with the Mass Effect universe (combat being, essentially, a filler between dialogues, with no impact beyond "You got a Game Over/You didn't get a Game Over" on the plot), and the lasting consequences of those choices give the series a true sense of being reactive to the players (even if that reaction usually just takes the form of an e-mail in your inbox or a modifier to your War Resources). The game is taking my decisions seriously, and that means I'M more inclined to take them seriously.

But, on the other hand, decisions like this also add to a game's... *shudder*... Replay Value.

I came to hate the idea of Replay Value around the same time that I realized it's a nasty misnomer - when people use the phrase, they don't mean "How fun is this game to replay?" They mean "How many times do you have to play through similar iterations of this game to experience all of the available content?" The Mass Effect games are TERRIBLE if treated this way - most meaningful choices come at the end of long missions that play out exactly the same until the end, meaning you're receiving relatively little "new" content as you play through the same game multiple times. The first game, especially, shows more and more of its seams the more times you return to it, until the sight of Eden Prime or, God help me, the horrible, terrible, awful, really quite poorly designed Mako Tank sequences are enough to make me sigh and shut the game off, dreams of creating some cool new Shepard concept to play through dying in the face of tedium and very, very bad driving controls.

Magical Diary is less punishing in this regard - you can skip dialogue you've seen before, and the choices are diverse enough that a second playthrough offers a great deal of new material to explore. There's still that sense of spinning your wheels as you repeat the same introductory sequences over and over, though (and skipping dialogue tends to mute the emotional impact when I get to the new parts, diminishing the context they exist in). And in a way, it's worse, because the game has an achievement system that tracks various mutually exclusive story moments, meaning the game is actively incentivizing a complete exploration of all the choices available to me as a player. Which leads to another problem, one more fundamental to the way we play.

When I played as Lady Grantham (and Gabriel Shepard, and any number of other RPG heroes), I followed a simple rubric for my choices - I picked the ones that seemed "Right" to me. Essentially, I played the characters as though they WERE me - albeit me as a 15-year-old witch or a highly trained Space Badass. That's part of the appeal of choice-based games for me, seeing what I'd do in these fantastical situations and deep moral quandaries.*

But this system of choice is also extremely limited - there might be a little wiggle room in how I'd decide an issue, but most of my decisions (like walking away from Damien), were pretty clear. I could just play through the game as "Lady Grantham, except she made one huge decision differently," but it feels dishonest to me - it doesn't fit with the way the character acts in my head. So the choice is to either invent a new person to play as, one with fundamentally different choices and values from my own, or to make choices on a whim, simply attempting to find new outcomes with no concern for character consistency (there's something appealing about this idea, given that trying to figure out "What Lady Grantham would or would not do" is essentially me arguing with myself like a crazy person).

Both of these options are concerned with one of the harder-to-track components of choice-based games: Consistency. Real people are (generally speaking) consistent - they have control over themselves every waking minute of the day, and the ways they use that control add up to a stable identity. It's part of what makes them seem, you know, real. Game characters, on the other hand, only have moments of control every few minutes - usually when a dialogue choice is presented - and generally very little incentive to have those disparate choices jibe with each other (and there may even be incentives to act INconsistently - Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey comes to mind as a game where the neutral character alignment, which leads to the game's most positive ending, really just means alternately choosing between "Nice" and "Evil" choices to stay in the middle of the sliding morality scale). Most systems that try to address these mood-swing-prone characters are punitive in nature - a Mass Effect character, for instance, who vacillates between Paragon and Renegade responses will be locked out of high-level Paragon or Renegade dialogue options (usually the ones that have the greatest impact on the story). But most games, sadly, don't care about the issue at all.** If the player cares about consistency (and if you're trying to experience a story in good faith, you do), in most cases it's up to them to provide it.

To do that in Magical Diary (and the next few paragraphs follow a pattern I've established in many, many games that encourage replay to experience different choices), I need new criteria to make decisions with - ideally ones that lead to me becoming emotionally involved with Damien, since the goal of this second playthrough is to experience new content. So, in the interest of consistency, I decide this new character is as demure and lovestruck as I can make her within the choices presented to me, a sweet pushover who follows whatever orders she's given. I create a new girl, name her something nondescript, and start playing through the first several weeks of the game again, meekly acquiescing to whatever anyone says.

It feels fucking gross.

Worse than that, it feels fake. Maybe it's a failure in roleplaying on my part, but caring about the games I play, and the stories they tell, means I treat choices like they matter - and emotionally investing myself in obviously wrong choices makes me feel sick to my stomach. This isn't going to work (as usual - my Renegade Shepards always had a sappy tendency to pick more and more Paragon options the more uncomfortable I got with doing mean things to virtual people) - so I switch to Plan B: gaming the system.

I start making choices just to find out what the outcomes are. I intentionally limit emotional investment. I maintain 10 different save files in parallel, 10 witch-girls with the same name and incrementally different decisions. I'm not a role-player anymore, I'm a data miner. I'm not exploring one character's passage through a year at a magical school, I'm playing a video game where the goal is to find all of the content hidden within a matrix of choices.

In a way, it's fun, interesting. I'm learning a lot about the universe the game takes place in, and about the other characters. The only character I'm not learning about is the one I'm playing as, because she's not really a character at all. She's just a tool I use to make choices.

There's no grand point I'm driving toward here - play your games the way you want. I'm just recounting my personal experiences. No Shepard's ever mattered more to me, been as "real" to me, as the first one I saved the galaxy with. And I can't help wondering if I wouldn't have been happier letting Magical Diary be the singular adventure of one Lady Grantham, the prank-loving spitfire of Horse Hall. Because as it stands now, having sent Boring McNoname through a hundred different possible lives, no one more valuable than the next, it occurs to me that I've had a great deal of Replay, and precious little Value.

*One of my most moving gaming moments is from a choice in Mass Effect, actually. On the planet Noveria, you encounter the Rachni Queen, unintentional broodmother of the horde of mindless insectoid monsters you've been fighting throughout the level. The choice: Let her go, trusting her word that the slaughter was inadvertent, and that past wars were caused by miscommunication, not malice. Or kill her, ending the Rachni threat forever, at the expense of committing genocide on an entire sentient race.  If it sounds familiar, it's because the situation is an almost-direct lift from Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, one of my very favorite books. (Card has become controversial in recent years for his less-than-tolerant stance on the morality of homosexuality, but Ender's Game, and its sequel, Speaker For The Dead, convey truly beautiful messages of compassion and humanism that have always resonated with me, even when their creator has failed to live up to those ideals.) Being presented with Ender's choice felt.. powerful to me, in a way very video games have managed to evoke. Sparing her made me feel, for a moment, really, actually happy.

** A few examples of this done right: Alpha Protocol (an adequate action RPG with an INCREDIBLE grasp of how to do choice-based consequences in a video game, I do not talk about this game enough, given my interests), boils all conversational choices down to three basic emotional stances (aggressive, professional, and suave), and then assigns the player an unseen reputation that subtly affects how people respond to them if they pick one option more often than the others. And Dragon Age 2, which uses a similar tracking system, except it uses it to determine which of three attitudes the player character uses in non-choice dialogues - brief asides, combat quotes, small things like that. It goes a long way toward making you feel like you're playing as a person, not just a choice-vehicle.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Some (Unprofessionally Speculative) Thoughts on Persona 4 Golden's New Social Link

Warning: I'm about to talk about something that, by necessity, requires significantly spoiling the video game Persona 4. As in, this is a mystery story, and I'm giving away the murderer. If you haven't played the game, and ever want to experience it the way you're meant to (and you should, it's excellent), read no further. Otherwise, meet me after the jump.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Writing By Me Over at Project: Ballad

I wrote another guest post for the writing portion of my friend Michael (aka the always followable @patchworkearth)'s comic, Project: Ballad. This particular piece is about games that employ deception to make the player question identity and the relationship between the player and the character (it meanders through Bioshock, Metal Gear, and the classic Interactive Fiction piece Spider & Web).

While you're there, be sure to bookmark and read the comic, which is now in full swing and is AWESOME. If you like the things I write, you'll like Project: Ballad - it uses the language of video games - and our relationship with them - to tell what's going to be an amazing story. Check it out.

Also, sorry it's so dusty around here, various illnesses and distractions have slowed my output. Should have something new for you (and by new, I mean an essay about a game that's a year old at this point) in a day or two.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Best Lunch

On the western edge of Indiana there's a city that barely qualifies for the name. In its attitudes, its income, its ambitions, everything except its population, it's a town. Small-town Indiana, with all the initial whimsy and eventual dread that phrase inspires. I'm from there, not that it matters.

On a busy street in this barely-city, (Terre Haute, in case you're curious), there's a little brick building. Graffiti covers the walls, and the large block windows. The only decoration (other than that provided by vandals, I mean) is a large globe light next to the door. There is, definitively, no sign.

If the light is on, which it usually is if it's the early afternoon and it's not Sunday, feel free to walk inside. If you do so (you should, by the way), you will find these things:

1) Formica tables, some messily stacked with paper towels, books, magazines.

2) Maps, seemingly scavenged from abandoned schools, depicting various continents - some attached, haphazardly, to the ceiling.

3) A man.

If he is not waiting on customers, the man will greet you and welcome you to Harry and Bud's. He will make some small talk with you. He'll ask if you want still water, or carbonated. He'll ask you if you'd rather listen to classical or jazz.

And then he will ask you what you would like to eat. No menu will be offered.

I have no idea how wide his repertoire expands, though I imagine it's vast. But my recommendation is that you do what I did, and simply ask him to serve you whatever he cares to make. He will smile, ask if there's anything you can't or won't eat (mushrooms, in my case), and then, pausing to give you a choice of soups, he will disappear into the back.

You will sit, perhaps making idle conversation with a dining partner. You will hear noises from the kitchen, and smell wonderful things. And, after about half an hour, the man will reappear, soup in hand. And then he will bring you your bread (French style, delicious). And then he will bring you the meal he has chosen to make you.

Two plates, piled high with an incredible variety of food. I can offer you my menu, in the knowledge that yours will almost certainly be different, depending on his mood: Salmon cakes covered in sharp aioli. Tender, thinly sliced pork loin. Roasted asparagus. Eggplant torte. Savory crepes. Snow peas. Shrimp.

The man will offer you plates to move this treasure trove to for consumption, and, when they arrive, they will (if you are as lucky as I was) be covered in delicious gnocchi. You will realize, that in this tiny brick building in small-town Indiana, you have been served a five-course meal that would not look (or taste) out of place in a quality restaurant in one of the great cities of the world. And the man will stand there, calmly proud, and ask you if he can bring you anything else.

You will not finish the food (not if your stomach is even vaguely human, I mean), but this is no worry - you will be cheerfully offered boxes to ferry it back home. You will be laden down like a frontier explorer, except instead of hardtack or salted beef, your saddlebags will be full of flavorful, healthy, delicious wonders.

This is before you are offered dessert, mind you.

And when you have finished this meal (as much as your body can manage, that is), and after your boxes and boxes of succulent leftovers have been tied up in bags for you, the man will name his price. There is no "check," no itemized bill. Every meal costs the same.

$20 per person.

And, setting down the days of food you are leaving with, you will reach into your wallet and pay him gladly. If you're smart (and even barely understand the concept of gratitude), you will tip, and tip well. And then you will stagger out the door.

You will find yourself once again in Terre Haute. The people on the streets will be just as drab, just as beaten by life as they were when you went in. The building behind you will seem as unassuming and silent as before. But you will be buoyed by the knowledge that there are still secrets in the world worth knowing. Mysteries that reward the solver. And kind men and treasures hiding behind blank walls. The knowledge will, hopefully, be of some comfort.

The full stomach will probably help, too.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


My improv group, Ad Liberation, performed at the Indiana University College Comedy Festival this weekend, and had a pretty great time. We took video of the show, and I post it here on the understanding that you are in no way obligated to watch it, given that it is 30 minutes of recorded longform improv comedy. I enjoyed doing it, and like the shows we created, but I know it's not everyone's cup of tea (or box of spiders). [I'm the tall one with the unflattering beard.]

Real writing later this week. I'm tired.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Guest Post over on Project: Ballad

This is just to let people know that I wrote a guestpost about the way time passes in games for the blog of Michael Peterson and Kevin Czapiewski's upcoming webcomic Project: Ballad.

You can read it here, if you like it, drop me a comment on this post, or, even better, sign up for the site forums and let me know what you think.

While you're on the site, do yourself a favor and spend some time looking at the other stuff on there. If you like my writing, you'll certainly enjoy Michael's, too - he's done some great stuff on the way we explore the spaces we play in.

Plus, the comic proper starts on April 18 (my birthday, whoo!), and as someone who has read the first few pages of the script, I can say that it's going to be really, really great. Strongly recommend you check it out.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Off The Script: The Problem With Storytelling In Open-World Games

Niko Bellic quietly contemplates the futility of war, of the violent life he has chosen. He mourns the friends stolen from him by his enemies, the tragic losses he has accrued through violence and crime. In the end, his experiences have taught him only this: that the American dream is an illusion, impossible for anyone to achieve.

The next day, he steps out onto his balcony and fires indiscriminately at the streets below, trying to see how many cops he can get to follow him. He spends five minutes carefully throwing grenades, trying to get the angle just right to put one under a car. Then, he takes the ruined cars, shoves them into a big pile, and ramps his motorcycle over it.

Niko Bellic's a complicated guy. Which is to say, he's the protagonist of an open-world game.

"Open-world" games came to prominence with the adventures of one of Niko's predecessors in 2001's Grand Theft Auto III. Obviously, games (especially RPGs) have been presenting players with large worlds to explore for years, but GTA III was one of the first to allow us to interact with and explore a large 3D environment in real-time*.

I love open-world games. Love the freedom they allow me, love the ability to let my id run rampant, love the thrill of exploring beautiful, interesting worlds. I'll play them happily for hours. There's just one problem, and, for a nerd with my particular interests, it's a big one. Because the vast majority of open-world games are terrible at telling a story.

It comes down to a simple question: How do you effectively tell a controlled narrative when your game's entire philosophy is built around letting the player do what they want?

If you're Rockstar, and most of their ilk, the answer is Missions. Tightly scripted narrative missions, where your amazing game world becomes nothing more than the backdrop for a shooter (or driver or brawler) level. Where you go out of your way to curtail player freedom so that he or she can't "break" the flow of your narrative.

In case you couldn't tell, I don't care for scripted missions. They downplay the genre's strengths (freedom, exploration, player choice) and emphasize weaknesses (see: any Grand Theft Auto game that forces you to shoot for extended periods). Even when missions are well-designed or allow the player to do cool things, they emphasize what CAN'T be done during unscripted gameplay. Worse than that, they lead to scenarios like the one outlined above, putting the player's portrayal of the protagonist directly at odds with the designer's. In a novel, everything a character does is part of who they are - in Grand Theft Auto IV, the character's actions only "count" when the designers dictate them.

In essence, missions divide open-world games in two - there's the wild anarchy of the sandbox portions, where the player is given complete control of who their protagonist is and what he or she** does. And then there are the missions, where the designers tell the story THEY have chosen to tell, through cutscenes, required player actions, and scripted events. The protagonists of these two games share a skin and (usually) the same controls... but that's it. Instead of using their open worlds to tell a story, these games deliver the story as a separate gameplay experience.

Generally, when developers try to combat these problems, they do so by curtailing the freedom of the sandbox portions. This sounds bad, but it works surprisingly well at times. Rockstar Vancouver's Bully, which takes place at a boarding school, limits the amount of violence and destruction protagonist Jimmy Hopkins can mete out (both by punishing certain actions, and flatly disallowing others). By cutting off actions like violence against young children, Rockstar a) quiets moral watchdogs, b) establishes fundamental, playable aspects of Jimmy's character, and c) sets a tone for the game - one significantly lighter than that of their flagship series. Essentially, Rockstar uses Bully's limitations on freedom to enhance the storytelling by cutting off avenues the player could take it down if given more choice.

This can be taken too far, of course - there's a point of limitation where the question becomes "Why did we build an open world in the first place?" Case in point - Team Bondi's fascinating-but-flawed L.A. Noire. The game features a beautiful, vibrant recreation of 1940s Los Angeles - and precious little to do in it. The player's entire time in the sandbox portions of the game is spent driving to locations related to cases, or answering calls (which generally lead to ill-advised shooter segments). The player is controlling a by-the-book L.A. detective - one so by the book, it leaves no room for freedom or fun. The game is all mission, no sandbox, an open-world in name only.

Developers have taken the balance to the other extreme, too. One of my favorite open-world games, Crackdown, developed by Realtime Worlds, forgoes missions entirely. Instead, the player is given a set of objectives (read: people) to accomplish (read: kill). Optional objectives are available to make these goals easier to achieve, and the game strongly suggests an order to follow to make things easier, but most of the game's choices are firmly in the player's hands. There is no scripting (and, unfortuantely, precious little story). The game feels, in many ways, like a trial run (albeit an extremely fun one) for a more interesting game, one where the player's choice of what areas of the world to explore and engage with informs the story***.

Lastly, there are those open-world games that embrace the destructive anarchy of player freedom, that tune their narratives to work synergistically with the chaos and mayhem the average player unleashes when given the chance. First and foremost among these are the Saints Row games, whose plots and missions strive to be crazier and more over-the-top than the stunts and nonsense that the players get up to when left to their own devices. Unlike Niko Bellic, there is no disconnect between the behavior of Saints Row: The Third's protagonist, "The Boss," in scripted missions or open sandbox play - he (or she, or it) is always an energetically sociopathic mass-murderer.

Obviously, this approach limits the kinds of stories that can be told - but it HAS been used to great effect to tell interesting stories about bad people. Far Cry 2, for instance, uses player freedom to force you into the shoes of a potentially amoral mercenary in war-torn Africa. If your character is a heartless killer, it's because YOU chose to play him that way. By allowing the player to be a monster, it more effectively throws the consequences of monstrous behavior in the player's face in a way that would be significantly less interesting in a more scripted game.

Video games allow the player's choices to affect the course of the story in ways unprecedented by other formats. Open-world games in particular embrace freedom. I look forward to seeing games utilize that freedom in the way they tell their narrative, instead of confining it to the sandbox.

*I'm glossing over a lot of games here, because GTA III was the first game to pull this off successfully on a console - opening the genre to the vast majority of players. Bethesda, for instance, published Daggerfall, which contains a huuuuuuge (and mostly featureless) open-world in 1996, and the very weird Terminator (described, entertainingly as always, by PC Gamer columnist Richard Corbett here) in 1990.

**I wracked my memory for examples of female sandbox game protagonists, but the pickings were pretty slim. The only ones that come to mind are (optionally) The Boss in the second and third Saints Row games, and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil****. If I'm leaving anyone out, shoot me an e-mail or leave me a comment.

***The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games generally also fall under this category*****, which made me wonder... Why are so many open-world games set in third-person? If I had to guess, I'd assume it has to do with the genre's console roots (at least as it's thought of today), and the discomfort in previous console generations with first-person views. But there also might be the fact that sandbox games emphasize exploration, and it's easier, I think, to engage with environments if you can see the figure you're moving through them. Just a random thought.

****EDIT: Twitter chum @patchworkearth, who posts excellent game criticism at the site for his soon-to-be-published, certain-to-be-awesome web comic Project: Ballad, pointed out quite rightly that Beyond Good and Evil hews much more closely to the Zelda model than the GTA one. Which begs the question: is a game that features a large, open, explorable world, with the player funneled into meticulously designed dungeons, a "sandbox" game? Or does the term refer more specifically (at least, in the methods I've been using in this article) to the urban exploration games that descend from Grand Theft Auto III? (Bonus reading: The slightly-surprising Wikipedia page for "Grand Theft Auto clone").

*****Okay, maybe I'm stretching a little bit here to include S.T.A.L.K.E.R., since they break the game's world up into individual zones. But I think they still count, since they're non-linear real-time 3D games based on exploring areas. Which.. I'm just going to keep expanding this genre until it includes Skyrim. And Super Mario Galaxy. And everything, ever. Then, and only then, will I be free.

But, seriously, the goal of this essay was to look at how you handle telling a story in a genre built around non-linearity. If I strayed from dead center of that topic to look at how other games handled the problems, or how they reflect on the sandbox genre... I can live with that.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Over The Flagpole: Escape as Art

I got into a conversation the other day with a friend of mine, a comp lit grad student. Her familiarity with gaming being somewhat limited, and my love of pontificating being extreme, I gave her a quick re-hashing of the old Roger Ebert "Video Games Can Never Be Art" discussion (a conversation I usually shy away from, since Ebert is a) obviously wrong, and b) probably arguing in bad faith for his own amusement). That argument/conversation morphed into a more interesting one, which I'll try to summarize here.

For me, a game becomes art when its mechanics and interactivity - the things that define it as a game as opposed to a series of pictures or a movie or a novel - make a meaningful statement about reality. Jonathan Blow's Braid is the obvious example, with its themes of perfectionism and regret amplified by the game's time-manipulation mechanics. (More recently, Molleindustria and Jim Munroe's game, Unmanned, examined the disconnect between Americans and the consequences of their actions by forcing players to divide their attention between two screens, one displaying dialogue choices and the other arcade-like mini-games related to the life of an American drone pilot). It's obvious to me that games can be designed to be art.

But the question that nagged at me while thinking about the issue was this: Can games generate art (or at least, artistic moments) without designer intent? Not just in the sense of unintentional meanings being found in the design, but as an expression of player freedom (hypothetically one of the key tenets of game design?)

One of Ebert's major contentions against video games is that, by giving up control to the players, a game's designer can never express a singular artistic vision the way a director or an author can. What he doesn't understand is that game designers don't give up control - they incorporate it into the stories they tell. (Most) games are not designed to play themselves - they expect certain actions from players and respond in turn. The design of a game is not just the world the player moves through, but the actions the game allows the player to take. In fact, the whole point of much of game design is to constrain player actions to the ones the designers want. Going even further, pieces like The Stanley Parable* make the case that ANY freedom in a game is an illusion, since the world is entirely constrained by the designer's intent. The only choice is to play, or not to play.

Even open-world games, touted for their openness to player choice, exist as shallow ponds, surrounded on all sides by the inflexible nature of the rules that make up the system. Most games that talk about freedom are actually talking about adding more rules, more systems into the game. Oh, you can own your own property in this one! - Once we've defined what property is, how it's purchased, and what benefits and effects it conveys in game. The system either tightens - you can romance many of the cast in Bioware RPGS, each of whom requires extensive scripting, animating, and writing - or becomes painfully vague - you can romance almost anyone in Fable III, but only by making the process generic enough to be described with extremely flexible rules. In either case, all actions are still defined by the rules supplied by the designer, and all "art" is the product of the designer's intent. But can the interaction of the rules themselves, divorced from the artist's goals, produce art?

All this got me thinking about Langton's Ant.

The Ant is a very simple (hypothetical) mechanism that produces very odd results. Existing on a grid of black or white squares, the ant moves according to two rules: If it encounters a white square, it turns right, flips the square to black, and moves forward. If it encounters a black square, it turns left, flips the square to white, and moves forward.

As you might expect, for the first several thousand iterations of these rules, the Ant produces a chaos of black and white squares. But then... (And this happens regardless of the initial black-and-white makeup of the grid, although "obstructions" may delay the process), the Highway emerges. The Ant begins to build a long, diagonal pathway away from the central pattern, made up of identical 104-step loops. In the most basic version of the Ant, this occurs at around 10,000 steps. Which is to say that, coded in those two very simple rules is hidden information about the incredibly complex behavior that occurs in their 10,000th iteration.

Video games have a lot more than 2 rules.

Obvious news flash: Game designers don't physically build the games we play. Instead, they lay out rules that describe the world they've imagined. If the rules are well crafted, the world is constructed to the designer's specifications, and the player is "trapped" within that design. They can only have the experience the designer WANTS them to have - any art that occurs in that scenario has been dictated by the designer, with the player acting, essentially, as a prop. But, as we just learned, rules can be tricky... And, really, what's a bug? A rule that's not doing what it's meant to.

Sometimes a bug in a game is there because someone miswrote a rule - a variable was mis-set, a step was left out. But sometimes it's because the rules are interacting in strange ways, ways the designer never intended.** Rules related to how player movement works intersect with rules defining how surfaces behave at corners... and suddenly you're on the other side of the wall.

There are whole communities built around these glitches. Speedrunners, especially, delight in finding ways to "break" the game to improve their times. But it occurred to me that there's something artistically meaningful in these sudden bursts of freedom - perhaps the most meaningful message games can convey. The artist loses control of his or her art - or, maybe, the rules themselves become inadvertent artists, working in concert with the players.

The example that comes to mind, that maybe this whole discussion builds out of in the back of my mind, is from the first game I ever owned: Super Mario Brothers. Every non-castle level of SMB ends the same way: the player guides Mario to the end-of-level flagpole, touches it, slides down, and control is taken away until the start of the next level. The flagpole stands as the edge of the designer's intended play area.

Which makes for a disconcerting experience when you realize you can jump over it...

Now, there are very few areas in the game where this is possible without cheating (although, now that I think about it, the use of cheat devices like the Game Genie to alter gameplay is ALSO a way for players to defy or circumvent the designer's intent by interacting directly with the game's rules). The easiest is in World 3-3, where there is a player-movable platform directly before the goal (probably significant that this trick is only possible in one of the rare parts of SMB where the designer gives control of the environment to the player). With good timing and a proper running start, Mario can leap OVER the flagpole, escaping the intended bounds of the playable area. Moving past the castle, Mario can now run along a featureless brick wall, unable to backtrack... until time runs out and he dies. Technically, it's pretty non-climactic.

But, as a kid, it was an incredible moment. I had ESCAPED the level. I was free from the designer's plan. I had done what wasn't expected.

Now, I'm not trying to suggest that this is some horrid violation of the universe's physics that would make Shigeru Miyamoto rip out his hair in a dark rage. It's clear that Nintendo knew about this glitch, and added a placeholder area behind the flagpole so that the game wouldn't crash. But the rules of SMB are exceptionally clear: the flagpole is the edge of the world. You can't jump over it, you can't escape. In the language of the game's design, it's a solid brick wall.

But by colluding with the rules, I beat the design. Experienced a moment of authentic-feeling freedom in a world entirely bound by constraints.***

It felt like art to me.

*The Stanley Parable is an excellent freeware mod for Valve's Source Engine. You can download it here, and I strongly recommend it. I'll probably have a post about it up in the next few weeks, but it's a game that deserves to be played before you read about it.

**Interestingly, combos, the backbone of most competitive fighting games, stem from a glitch in Street Fighter II that allowed players to chain moves together. Glitches like these often end up becoming part of high-level gameplay in competitive games, basically allowing the interactions between the rules, and the player's ability to take advantage of them, to trump initial designer intent.

***One of the factors behind the success of Valve's game Portal (besides being excellent), is how well it simulates this feeling. The entire first two-thirds of the game function as a metaphor for the game player, being forced to complete ridiculous, arbitrary tasks by an inflexible machine. The moment where the player breaks free of GLaDOS's control, escapes the fire, and breaks into the "backstage" is an in-design attempt to recreate the same freedom I'm trying to convey in this post. Of course, it's fake freedom... But it talks to the same part of the gamer mind, I think.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Timed Hits Part 3: Gems, Tiles, and Beats

This is the third and final part of "He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits," a series of posts on how game developers have used and modified the mechanics of RPG combat over the years, and what it can tell us about the genre. Part One, dealing with the inclusion of action and timing elements, can be found here. Part Two, an in-depth look at how standard RPG combat is refined and enhanced by increasing player choice, here.

In this conclusion, I'd like to look at games that have approached the issue of RPG combat by avoiding it - by throwing out "standard" combat systems entirely in favor of more unorthodox choices. These aren't games like Call of Duty, where the progression mechanics of role-playing games are used to enhance an established genre. They're not even true hybrids, like the Shooter/RPG Mass Effect 2, which play like a deliberate cross-breeding of genre. These games, in my eyes, are still fundamentally RPGs*, but ones that have replaced their combat systems with a separate but equal alternative.

I want to examine these games, not because I'm dismissive of RPG combat as it stands (I think this series makes it clear that, on the contrary, I've thought FAR too deeply about it over the years), but because, by transposing new systems into the place of the old ones, we can figure out what makes this genre so compelling and long-lasting.

RPG combat is a metaphor, an abstraction meant to represent the hectic back-and-forth of a real battlefield. At the same time, it's meant to give the player a feeling of connection to their character's actions, with menus (or other combat control systems) representing the choices available to the characters. If games are about simulating experiences that the player couldn't have in real life, then the following games approach that old goal of simulation in new, innovative ways.

1) Puzzle Quest

Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest created a slight stir back in 2007 by adapting a Bejeweled-type Match 3 game as a battle system for an otherwise typical fantasy RPG. The player moves around a map, solving quests, searching for treasure, fighting monsters. And when it's time to fight... Out come the gems!

During combat, the player takes turns with the AI, moving pieces on a Match 3 board, trying to line up gems to fill their various mana bars or deal direct damage. Matches of four or five provide extra turns and bonus effects, and much of the strategy relies on making optimal moves for yourself while denying strong moves to your opponent.

The RPG elements come into play by allowing either side to vastly modify the play field. Both player and opponent are equipped with a wide variety of spells whose effects range from direct damage, to massively skewing the distribution of gems on the field to a particular color, to destroying certain gems for a big boost in power. At the same time, player equipment and stats modify the effects of matching gems (generally increasing mana earned or damage dealt per match).

One of the ways that I like to judge games like this is by seeing how they represent different enemy "types". In Puzzle Quest, a "fast" enemy will have low HP, but plenty of cheap, quickly recharging spells. A "mage" will have a few cheap abilities designed to funnel mana to him to fuel his expensive, devastating spells. A "warrior" will have straightforward spells and a bonus to his damage for matching skulls (the direct-damage gem type). Fights become a matter of learning how to control the battlefield and counter your enemy's specific tactics (for example, denying a fire-based enemy access to the red gems he'll need to cast his spells). These mechanics allow the player to get a sense of what it would be like to fight these creatures that is both separate from, and parallel to, the sense they'd get from battling such monsters in a more traditional RPG.

2) Bookworm Adventures

Of course, Infinite Interactive was following in Bejeweled creator PopCap's steps in more ways than one with Puzzle Quest - the puzzle-game-as-fighting thing had already been done a year earlier by the kings of gem destruction with Bookworm Adventures, an RPG spin-off of their popular Boggle clone Bookworm.

Compared to Puzzle Quest, the combat in Bookworm Adventures (and its sequel, released in 2009) is ridiculously simple. You have a grid of letters. You spell words with them. The longer the word you spell (and the more difficult the letters used), the more damage you do to the opponents who are bashing away at your health after every word spelled.

What BA lacks in complexity, though, it makes up for in charm, and in visceral thrills. Lex, the titular bookworm, is cute as hell, and his vocal clips and dim-witted taunts are often delightful (not to mention the always-hilarious descriptions of enemies, most of whom are parodies or direct lifts from fables, nursery rhymes, and works of literature).

But the real appeal of the game is the slow construction of perfect words, the thrill of tapping away at your enemies with "and" or "boat" or "car" as you wait for the final letter that will let you unleash "extraordinarily." The battle animations support the joy of it, ranging from a simple head-bop by Lex to an earth-shaking blast of vocabularial power. (Note: Do not try to use "vocabularial" in Bookworm Adventures, it is not a real word).

The RPG mechanics are limited - Lex levels up automatically as you play, slowly increasing his basic stats. And a new treasure is gained at the end of every level, two of which may be brought into the next to produce a bonus or defend against certain status effects. But to me, it's still a great RPG, because of the way it translates my mental struggles into in-game awesomeness. Blowing away the Monkey King with "devastated" felt as intense and real as blasting Sephiroth with Knights of Round did when I was 13.

3) Sequence

Confession time: When I started this series, two months ago (Ye gods, do I write slowly), it was initially as an EXTREMELY roundabout way of talking about a game that I felt had redefined RPG combat in an important, enjoyable new way, and which quickly became one of my favorite games of 2011. That game was Sequence.

The first game from the two-person team Iridium Studios (plus two musicians and a handful of voice actors), Sequence is one of the strongest gaming debuts I've played in a long time. The plot, which starts with a standard "guy-wakes-up-in-a-mysterious-place" premise, quickly expands to include warm, memorable characters, hilarious meta-musings on the nature of gaming, and, ultimately, strong questions on the nature and value of free will. I could write an essay on it (and probably will), but the focus of this article (and no one would blame you for forgetting, given how many parenthetical statements (including this one) I've been making), is on combat. And the combat in Sequence is sublime.

This is going to get a little complicated, so if my ramblings stop making sense, just skip this paragraph and watch the embedded video from Iridium's Jason Wishnov talking about the game (and even if you do understand, you should watch the video to see it in motion - plus, it's pretty funny). Combat in Sequence, to quote Wishnov, is a "mash-up between a rhythm game and a traditional RPG." When combat begins, a song starts playing. The player is presented with three small screens, each with a DDR-esque row of arrows at the bottom. One screen is for Defense - arrows that fall here represent enemy attacks, and must be blocked with well-timed player input or damage will be taken. Another screen is for casting spells - the only way of doing damage to opponents. The player chooses an equipped spell and activates it - causing a specific sequence of arrows to fall. Failure to input the sequence causes the spell to fail, doing nothing except wasting mana. The third screen is for re-charging the mana used to power spells - there's no consequence for missing notes here, but if you don't pay attention to it, you'll run dry and be unable to activate any of your attacks.

The tricky part here is that only one screen can be active at a time - necessitating a constant cycling as you deflect attacks, charge your mana, and execute the often-tricky sequences needed to unleash attacks. In essence, this means that your true enemy in these fights isn't the gorgeously drawn monster you're facing (which is really just a pool of hit points and an attack and defense stat to modify damage given and received), but the tempo and beat of the song currently playing. Timing becomes the most crucial consideration of every move - a powerful spell might be unfeasible if its steps are too complicated, or its sequence takes several seconds to input, seconds where you're either taking damage or frantically flipping between screens to block. The tension of dividing your attention, watching all the parts of the "battlefield", and waiting for a moment when your opponent's attacks flag to strike... It's as pure a sensation of "being in a fight" as any of the other combat abstractions I've encountered in more traditional RPGs.

When I finally tapped into that feeling, it made me realize that that's the element I seek out in games like this. The adrenaline rush of pitting my mind and hands against an opponent, of formulating desperate plans and executing them with my tongue clenched between my teeth. And Sequence made me realize that that feeling is core to the joys of the RPG, and that it transcends whatever metaphor a game uses to convey it - whether it be timed hits and Judgment Rings, or job systems and wordy menus, or deadly beats and falling arrows.

If there's a lesson to be taken away from all this, it's this: The battle is what matters, not the skin it wears.

At the risk of being a terrible shill, I'd like to point out, here at the end of this series, that Sequence is available on XBox Live Arcade and Steam for $5 (and it often goes on sale). If you love RPGs, and even only like rhythm games, you owe it to yourself to play it.

*If one of the points of this series was to consider what, exactly, "RPG" means, by excluding elements of narrative design and focusing solely on combat, I have to conclude that, in this regard at least, the series has failed. Having examined as many combat systems as my feeble memory could present me with, I've become a little flummoxed by the sheer diversity of the genre. The only similarity I can find (and even here I'm generalizing horribly) is the common sense of disconnect between the player and the action on the screen. Menus, swapping gems, even things like Shadow Hearts' Judgment Ring, all stand in between what the player experiences and what the character does. Even in games that give direct control to players, the character's stats still modify the effects of player action in a way that, say, the character in Modern Warfare does not. If Zelda's Link was meant to be a "link" between the game world and the real world, then perhaps an RPG character is defined in the way they don't link, in the way their existence stands between and modifies the difference between the player and the game.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gunpoint: Where Player Freedom Becomes An Artform

Tom Francis is one of my favorite gaming writers. He works for PC Gamer UK, and has been responsible for some of my favorite features written on the ways players can explore and engage with the games they play.

You can always tell one of Tom's reviews by the glee with which he approaches the subject. They're full of breathless descriptions of bizarre or interesting situations the games let him get into, dumb, fun tricks he's logic'd himself into trying. For instance, take this example from his review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution:

He’s inside gang territory, trying to make it to a door at street level. He decides to use the surprising development of a vending machine falling out of the sky to distract the gangsters, so that he can drop down and get to the door without attracting attention. A sort of pepsi ex machina.

Jensen hurls the vending machine arbitrarily and tumbles off the building after it. His Icarus Landing System kicks in, floating him safely towards the street below in a dazzling ball of golden light. When the vending machine crashes to the ground, the armed gangsters nearby all look at it in surprise. Then they look at the dazzling ball of golden light floating down to land across the street, and they draw their guns.

Francis's critical perspective on games seems fueled not so much by the choices and scenarios that games force on people, but by the ones that they allow. His writing celebrates games like Deus Ex for allowing the player's own mad ideas to be a major factor in their success. As such, it's not surprising that when he decided to design his own game, it became something like an art studio for brilliant works of player creativity.

It works like this: Tom's game, Gunpoint, is a stealth platformer about breaking into buildings without being shot by some EXTREMELY trigger happy guards. The levels are full of interactive elements - light switches, door panels, cameras, alarms. On the surface, these are all on the side of the guards, systems in place to thwart your hero, Conway, from reaching his goal. Except Conway has an ace up his sleeve (also: springs in his pants, but that's neither here nor there): The Crosslinker.

Mousewheel up, and you enter Crosslink mode. All of the details of the level fade into darkness... Except the devices. Those light up like lights on a Christmas tree. And, like a child opening his presents on Christmas morning, you can start to play...

Drag a line from any device to any other to connect them. A light switch will now open a door. A guard walking through a motion sensor will call an elevator to his floor, distracting him. Re-wire a hand-scanner so that, instead of opening the door it's connected to, it activates the scanner on the other side, activating the door in the opposite direction, slamming into the guard and knocking him out. The Crosslinker turns every level into a playground for crazy Rube Goldberg machines and nasty pranks.

The brilliant, compelling thing about this design is how unnecessary most of these tricks are. Gunpoint is built so that brute force is almost always an option; guards can be pounced from behind and knocked unconscious; you can even buy a gun and shoot them dead - although, in keeping with the idea that this is a stealth game, gunshots will quickly summon difficult-to-avoid-snipers at the level exit (although even these can be avoided with enough upgrade points invested in a bullet-deflecting belt). Even when using the Crosslinker, there are a few simple moves (the aforementioned suicide-by-door trick, for instance) that can be used over and over to clear levels... efficiently. You could play it that way.

But most likely, you won't. Instead, you'll sweat, and puzzle, and play, until you've found a convoluted, beautiful solution to your problems. Because you can.

The motivating philosophy behind Gunpoint is, I think, that if you give players freedom, and have faith in them to use it, they will. You don't HAVE to set off a cascade of opening doors, moving elevators, blaring alarms, and darkened hallways that culminates in a man being electrocuted by a light switch. You do it because it is, objectively, awesome. And it is equally awesome that the game allows you to do it, with no scripting or forcing. The only motivating desire is the desire to do something great with the vast, flexible tools provided. It's the difference between "Man, that game just did some awesome stuff," and "Man, I just did some awesome stuff."

It's challenging, refreshing, rewarding. I expect videos of Gunpoint solutions to be a big hit on Youtube (and I'm quietly hoping Francis will implement some basic video-capture elements into the game to make sharing mad, inspired solutions that much easier). Because who doesn't love showing off just how crazy they can be, when someone gives them the chance?

In closing, please enjoy this: Three unscripted, me-designed moments from my most recent Gunpoint playthrough that had me laughing or feeling like a badass. These are, I guess, technically spoilers, but since the whole game is devising your own personal way around obstacles, I don't think it'll hurt to see my approaches.

1) I'm standing at the window of a building. Across a small alleyway stands another building, with a guard, above me, looking out. I'm safe now, but when I move my cursor into the space between the buildings, it turns red, telling me that I'll be seen as soon as I step (or leap) outside. He's in pouncing range, and I've upgraded my leap enough to propel me through the window, but there's no chance I'll cross the distance before he puts a bullet in me. I could shoot HIM, maybe, but I've still got objectives left in the level, and no time to clear them before the sniper shows up, blocking the exit.

I slip into Crosslink mode, look at my options. I'm in luck! The switch behind me is on the same circuit (devices on different circuits can't be linked together, usually) as the lights on his floor. I hook my switch to his lights, exit Crosslink, and flick it. Lights go out, he turns around to turn them back on, and as soon as his back is turned, I pounce, crashing through the window and slamming my fist into his face. Awesome.

2) Problem: I need to get through a door, and there are guards on either side of it. I can't open the door myself, and they'll shoot me on sight. What to do, what to do....

Solution: I've bought a new gadget in the between-mission store: the Longshot. It allows me to, with the expenditure of a power core, Crosslink a guard's gun. I laughed out loud when I saw that. I pull out the Crosslinker. A few tweaks later, and I set a tragedy in motion.

I flick a switch, and the lights on the floor go out. Guard A is the closest to the light switch, but it's on the other side of the door. So he activates the hand-scanner to go through. This activates the door... which activates Guard B's (standing guard further down the hallway on the other side) gun... Guard A crumples to the floor, shot. Guard B stands there, slapping at his gun, wondering why it misfired... as I come up behind him and pounce. Beautiful.

3) There's a Pro on the floor below me. Pros are special types of guards, clad in black suits like high-price bodyguards or Will Smith hunting aliens. Annoyingly, they're much harder to manipulate than their less-professional brethren. They won't follow noises. They won't freeze in place when you point a gun at them. They just shoot you, and then you're dead. Like I said, annoying.

I leap down, crashing through the hallway's plate-glass roof. Quick as lightning, the Pro unholsters his gun, points it at me, pulls the trigger... And the lights go out. The door behind him opens. And, grinning at his misfiring gun... I pounce. It is exceptionally Batman.

Thanks, Longshot.

Gunpoint is still in development. You can follow its progress and sign up to test (which I've been doing for the last nearly-2-years, and highly recommend) at and on Twitter at @GunpointGame. The game is up for the Audience Choice award at the Independent Games Festival this year, so if what you've read here (and on Tom's blog) sounds interesting, consider voting for it here:
Voting ends Sunday 2/19.