Latest Blog Posts

by L.B. Jeffries

22 Sep 2008

The ongoing debate regarding the creation of non-linear, cutscene free stories in games is founded on a very interesting premise. Video games could, with the right technology, create a completely interactive story that changes in response to the player to create a unique play experience for every person. Games like Far Cry 2, STALKER, or Fallout 3 are all pushing the envelope for simulating unique and open stories. The problem is…back here in critic town we tend to do better when we talk about what we’ve played instead of speculating. So Godspeed developers, I anxiously await your return. Instead, why not talk a bit about linear games and the experiences they create? How does one develop a story in a good old fashioned Mom & Pop linear game? How does that compare to a game with unlimited possibilities?

 

Oddly, the best place to really start getting an idea of what a story-teller does in a linear game is to watch a writer convert a video game into a movie script. In an interview with Gamasutra, Jordan Mechner describes what it was like writing both the original Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and the process of making it into a screenplay. He explains that the game starts off with everyone becoming a zombie except two or three people. That’s a fantastic way to setup an acrobatic fighting game set in Persia. The problem is that for a movie this would get old very rapidly. Watching the Prince leap up yet another pillar and stab the hundredth zombie got old in the actual game, so it’s hard to imagine this working in a screenplay. To convert a game into a film you have to start adding other characters and new plot elements, and try to maintain the spirit of the game without telling a dull story. The writer’s first job, then, in a linear game is to create a fun environment or setting for the player to interact with. Yet countless linear games take place in epic fantasy settings, recreated real-life cities, or other fascinating scenarios. What makes Prince of Persia: Sands of Time stand out in so many people’s minds?

 

It stands out because it incorporates the dramatic and characterizing elements of a film in conjunction with this setting. Whereas the characters are the focus and the setting is secondary in a film, a linear game plot flip-flops those values. Conversation has a built-in connection with the game design, and must serve as the backdrop to the game instead of act like the main focus. Many of the game’s acrobatic puzzles involve Farah, the female love interest, as you both work together to get to the final tower. Sometimes she pulls the lever you need to keep moving and sometimes you have to press the block that helps her. All of the puzzles are linear in their solutions, but the dynamic process that gets you to the end often involves your character relying on Farah and vice-versa. There are many sections where her safety is in your hands during combat as well, further magnifying the relationship through the game design. Make no mistake, this is a tricky balance for a game to strike. Jonathon Blow notes how disingenuous this can become in a game such as Half-life 2, where the player sometimes just sees Alyx as a way to unlock doors. Kill X number of creatures, protect subject Y, and incorporate dialog is not as easy a formula as it sounds. What makes Prince of Persia work, in my opinion, is that the Prince begins to fall in love with Farah. He says so in his internal monologues while you crawl around the acrobatic puzzles. Since so much of linear video game stories involve role-play instead of player input, this important difference smooths out the harsher realities of the game design. I worry about Farah because the Prince is worried about her.

 

Another interesting take to linear plots in video games is to simply pause the rollercoaster for a few moments and ask the player what they think. Not in a literal question that affects the outcome of the plot in a meaningful way, but rather just to postulate a game design choice that induces some sort of reflection. JRPG’s are extremely good about this by providing dialogue options at key emotional moments in the game that induce reflection for the player. Do you want to go out on a date with Tifa or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII? When one of them asks you if you had a good time, do you say you wish you were with the other? None of this changes anything in terms of story, but it does create an interesting capacity for the video game to ask the player to reflect. If a film or book had a reader’s note that simply said, “Hey, think about this before continuing on” it would break up the flow of the experience. But video games can do this because they’re pausing to reflect on which direction they want things to move in. It’s all still very minor stuff in the grand scheme of the plot, but I think many players would take pause if the game asked them why they shot innocent civilians in that last level. Forcing them to say they don’t care is just as interesting a moment as having them engage emotionally.

 

Steve Gaynor comments in an essay on the merits of video games, “Video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” To rephrase the comparison made at the start of this essay, is the game creating a virtual experience where I’m playing as myself or as someone else? That’s the difference between a linear plot and a non-linear one, one where I play as a character or where that character is me. If I’m playing as someone else, that means my game design and relationships have a logical limitation based on the character. The Prince is never, ever, going to stab Farah because he’s sick of her dying on him. The game design of a good linear story is able to engage the player because it explains the role they inhabit and makes them comfortable with the actions rather than thinking “I wanted to do it differently”. You worry about Farah because the character you play is worried about her. As David Cage earnestly explains in an interview with Gamasutra on his own linear adventure game, designers should not be so afraid of telling the player no. They’re roleplaying a character not of their own making and they should be willing to accept that this comes with certain limitations within the story. Perhaps the real key to making a linear game great is figuring out how to do that without the player being annoyed by the restrictions imposed. Instead, those restrictions are embraced as part of the story.

by Lara Killian

22 Sep 2008

image

I was surprised by the sudden arrival of the fall season today in the northern hemisphere. Some people feel like it will soon be time to pull on the woolly coats and hibernate until the sun shines again, but I feel there is a reawakening going on in areas with vibrant student populations. The energy on campus as first assignments come due and readings start to pile up is fantastic. And with a return to school comes a renewed focus on outreach programming related to literature and writing. This Saturday, 28 September, The Word on the Street Book and Magazine Festival 2008 will be celebrated in five Canadian cities: Calgary, Halifax, Kitchener, Toronto and Vancouver. The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia is sponsoring some excellent readings and local events not only in the week leading up to The Word on the Street Festival, but right on into October as well. And all this week, Thin Air,  the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, is on. I particularly wish I could have swooped in for Andrew Davidson’s reading from The Gargoyle at Winnepeg’s Millennium Library. He’ll be in Toronto on 24 September, just in case you’re interested. Any upcoming book or literacy festivals in your area?

by Rob Horning

22 Sep 2008

Since returning from vacation, I’ve read little other than posts about the banking industry’s continued implosion and the various bailouts meant to rescue it. The most recent issue is Treasury secretary Hank Paulson’s plan to spend unlimited billions without any oversight buying up banks’ bad assets in a contemporary version of the Resolution Trust Company, which was deployed during the 1980s savings-and-loan bailout. Paulson’s idea seems to be to stop the financial crisis by fixing banks’ balance sheets once and for all, through the magic process of letting banks replace failing, ill-considered, or impossible-to-price items on it with what the banks want them to be worth in government (aka taxpayer) cash. With the toxic assets—strange how toxic has moved from a business journalism cliche to a virtual term of art—cleansed from the system, banks can resume borrowing short and lending long again as their business model demands. As Mark Thoma points out, this will work if the problem is illiquidity. If the banks are actually insolvent, what’s needed to bail them out is a massive capital infusion—money for nothing. Given the nature of the assets the government would acquire under the Paulson plan, it’s not clear if there is a difference.

Most experts and pundits and economists who have commented on Paulson’s plan seem to hate it. (Steven Waldman has a good roundup here.) Some question it because it rewards an industry for its failure to effectively perform its most basic function—evaluate credit risk so that it can make loans to make money. Some are skeptical because it gives Paulson unchecked power to help his former compatriots on Wall Street. (The proposal features this banana-republic-appropriate codicil: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”) Some wonder why it uses taxpayer money to prop up an industry that has doled out to itself millions in bonus money while doing nothing to help the wage-earning classes directly. Some are curious about why the banks should be able to get away with selling assets no one else wants to the government at sweetheart prices. Many note that this is risk-free socialism for the rich—the gains of entrepreneurship are privatized while the losses are socialized. Accordingly, most commentators want to see a taxpayer stake added to the plan, under which the government gets to own part of the firms it helps out—a debt-for-equity arrangement of some sort. But such an arrangement would threaten to nationalize the banking industry.

Would that be a terrible thing? It could, in economist Luigi Zingales’s phrase, “save capitalism from the capitalists.” Of course, bankers don’t like such a thing, and as Zingales points out, it is much easier for those few bankers to coordinate and argue their side to Congress then the many taxpayers who would get nothing under the Paulson plan. So it seems unlikely that the plan will be modified too much in our favor. But hey, we got a lot of overpriced and inefficient houses in the exurbs out of this whole mess.

by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker

22 Sep 2008

The Mercy Lounge and its even bigger venue sister downstairs, the Cannery Ballroom, combine to provide great music venues. There’s lots of space on stage and off, but wear your comfortable shoes, as seats are few. Downstairs, you can sit on the other side of a brick wall to the Ballroom, a wall perforated with open windows to let the music through, and rest your aching mules while sinking in to a broken down vinyl seat at a table. There’s a whole string of ‘em along the wall.

We started our final evening of the American Music Fest diggin’ the Duhks, a powerfully talented stew of young Winnipegians. Watching this good looking group of young people started me thinking about how I (KZ of the SZ/KZ team, that is) like the food on my plate. (This will make sense in a moment.)  See, I like to mix things up. To the embarrassment of my mate when we dine at restaurants, I’ve gottta stir, swirl, and glop it all together—deee-lish!

That’s what the Duhks are like: a plate full of all the good stuff, all mixed up. You’ll get rock (with a violin that sounds like an electric guitar), cabaret (with that tinge of the dark, somewhat perverse, rather intellectual approach which makes for the best of cabaret), foot-stomping Celtic, and a spicy bit of Afropop (wherein the fiddle becomes a thumb piano). Sarah Dugas’ versatile pipes can belt out gospel with the best of ‘em, followed by some good ol’ Louisiana Cajun. Sarah and Tania Elizabeth will sing to you in French and sing to you in English, but the band’s instruments sing in more tongues than any mere multilingual human can.

Their rousing finale merged into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, no doubt a nod to Robert Plant, who’s been making the rounds at the American Music Fest this year. He and Alison Krauss won the Album of the Year for Raising Sand. As for “Whole Lotta Love”, we rather liked the Duhks version of this rock classic better. Sorry, Robert.

For those of you who like the piles on your plate all neat in their own places, think of the Duhks as a belly-busting buffet—you get it all, however you like it. Dig in.

Downstairs for the Glen Campbell tribute—with Jim Lauderdale, Chuck Mead, Raul Malo and many others—wherein the man himself came out and sang not only some of his own stuff—songs with that melted, gooey cheese dripping all over them—that is: songs that everyone loves (and everyone sings along with). The country star covered Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Live)”, as well. The man looks and sounds good. Indeed, he seems like he’s hardly changed over the years - such is the nature of old souls, aged yet ageless, somehow.

We squeezed our way back upstairs for Buddy Miller, who’d bring on Bonnie Bramlett for some rocking harmonizing. Standing right up front, tempted to take a sip from that cool, bottled water at Buddy’s feet, we were experiencing the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Row at its best: hot, crowded, and friendly. (The guy behind me was a hootin’ and hollerin’ in the manner of fan appreciation. Now that’s good company, unlike the guys at Day 1 at The Basement.) 

At Mercy and Cannery, the bartenders are friendly, the fellow out in the parking lot collecting the $3 parking fee is friendly (swear it’s the same guy as last year), the musicians who make their way unassumingly amongst you, give a nod and let you through, or mutter a simple ‘scuse me, when making their way—all unassumingly polite. You are in good company in these places.

Day 3 at the 3rd & Lindsley, Jim White sang that a bar was just a church that serves beer. Well, down here in the buckle of the Bible belt, we never set foot in a church - technically speaking, that is—but we shared hours and hours of sweet fellowship with the music-loving faithful.

God looked down and saw that it was good.

* * *

Our wish list for next year’s Americana Music Fest:

Give Casey Driessen a showcase (we caught up with him on our volition).

Bring Trent Summar back, and give him a Friday or Saturday night showcase. The few who saw him on a Wednesday, we think it was, last year, enjoyed him mightily. More Dale Watson too, please. You can never get enough Texas honky tonk. Less quiet, mellow stuff and more barn burners would liven these nights up even more.

Invite the stellar musicians that comprise BeauSoleil. Perhaps a Cajun night with the Red Stick Ramblers might be in order. Marcia Ball would fit in nicely there too to broaden the taste of the Louisiana stew.

And finally, we hope that Nashville doesn’t run out of gas at next year’s Fest. Driving downtown to meet up with folks, we passed lines of cars blocks long, waiting to fill at gas stations that were pumping painfully slowly. Cops were guiding traffic. People were standing outside their cars, waiting. It was a site reminiscent of the ‘70s gas crises, though unlike many of our compatriots who had to hitch rides to showcases, we were lucky that we had enough in the tank to get us to Kentucky, north of the crises, come the time we had to leave this lovely land that is Nashville, Tennessee.

by Jason Gross

22 Sep 2008

Since last month, I had that title sitting in my drafts folder, wondering if I’d have ever the occasion to write about the topic.  I mean, other than in musician mags, does anyone really write about such an idea anymore?  Not that I see and that’s a shame.  That’s why I was glad to see this recent article in Blurt Magazine about Jon Mueller, whose career might just answer the question I posed here.  Some of the prose there is a little flowery about lit references but the subject is definitely fascinating enough to warrant an extended article.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Hozier + Death Cab for Cutie + Rock Radio 104.5's Birthday Show (Photo Gallery)

// Notes from the Road

"Radio 104.5's birthday show featured great bands and might have been the unofficial start of summer festival season in the Northeast.

READ the article