Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 17, 2009
These old games represent the eventual result of certain modern trends in gaming.

I started my gaming with the Playstation and Nintendo 64, so I completely missed the “golden age” of adventure games. I have a few memories of laughing at Sam and Max Hit the Road, and I vaguely remember enjoying one of the King’s Quest games, but that’s about it. Until recently. I was happy to find Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis as an unlockable bonus in the newest Indy game, and I bought the updated Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars after hearing such good things about. After playing both, I am now unabashedly in love with the genre. As I look back at my time with both games, I realized that these old games represent the eventual result of certain modern trends in gaming.


A Focus on Memorable Stories and Characters
As games have become more cinematic, more emphasis has been placed on story and characters. Every game wants to tell a good story now, and often the story for a AAA game is hyped up just as much as the graphics or controls. This focus on story and characters is a staple of all the old adventure games. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is remembered because it captures the fun peril of the movies, and many titles from LucasArts are loved for their humor and characters.


Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is no exception. Some of the most memorable moments come from interacting with other characters. From the snooty sounding British woman who’s only too willing to stick it to “The Man,” to the Middle Eastern boy whose wealth of knowledge comes from memorizing Trivial Pursuit cards, to the American tourist who thinks he’s a spy, everyone we can talk to has a distinct personality. These are not nameless townsfolk who only have a couple sentences worth of dialogue; we can carry on a full and unique conversation with each person we come across. As for the story, it starts off as a murder mystery and slowly grows into a global conspiracy. The ever-growing scope means there are always new twists being introduced, and the mystery plot, with its focus on discovering leads and solving puzzles, makes for an addicting game. Which leads into my next point.


The Games are Driven by Story Not Action
Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, the founders of BioWare, had a recent interview with gameindustry.biz in which they said, “We talk a certain amount internally about whether you need to have combat as part of the experience…Certainly the core gaming experience, folks that are used to playing games over the last ten years, they want to have those battle moments, and the fighting. But there are different audiences that would maybe just enjoy the story.” Combat is the chief method of interaction in games: These “battle moments,” these short action sequences that test our skill, are strung together one after another until there are enough to keep a player busy for 8-12 hours. This makes for a compelling game since there’s always a new obstacle to overcome, but it’s not very conducive to storytelling, and to hear Greg and Ray talk of it, it sounds like there’s never been an alternative.


Adventure games, almost universally, are driven by story and not “battle moments.” Many adventure games do have combat, but these moments are not the focus of the game. It could be argued that this genre is driven by puzzles instead of story, but players usually get frustrated if the puzzles don’t make sense within the context of the game. The best adventure games integrate their puzzles naturally into the story.


In Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, the story is already tailor-made for some abstract puzzles. As a simple mystery the story works well with the gameplay, tracking down leads and asking the right questions to the right people, but it works better as a grand mystery since unraveling a centuries old secret often requires solving some ancient puzzle. The puzzles in Broken Sword compliment the story as each solution revels more of the plot, which leads to another puzzle, and so on. As the player finds clues he’s driven to continue playing, to unravel just a little bit more. The story compels us forwards, and the puzzles add challenge and interactivity to what would otherwise be a movie or novel.


No Death
As games focus more on story, death becomes an impediment to the experience because when the player dies there’s no more story to tell. But when the latest Prince of Persia removed death completely, it was derided by many as being too easy and too short. From that controversy it would seem like gamers still want the possibility of failure. But Prince of Persia was driven by those same old “battle moments.” Sometimes we were battling an enemy, other times the environment, but we were always fighting against some skill-based challenge the game threw at us. By removing death, the possibility of failure, from a game driven by this competition, success became inevitable and therefore worthless.
 
On the other hand, the removal of death in Broken Sword is hardly noticeable. It was only when I was about 10 hours in, and the main character was being held at gunpoint, did I realize I had not yet died in the game. Not only had I not died, but I had never even been in situation where death was possible. Because the game was driven by story and not combat, death would only interfere with the pacing, so it became unnecessary.


Lack of death is, unfortunately, not part of all adventure games, but when the player is allowed to die in such a game it only proves how disruptive death is to the overall experience. I died quite a few times in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis whenever I was forced to fight guards. Since death wasn’t possible for much of a game, I took a laissez-faire approach to saving, so when death was unexpectedly introduced I ended up having to replay large portions of the game again. It’s always frustrating when a game teaches us to play one way, and then punishes us for playing that way. It’s telling that death was only possible during these moments of combat. Whenever a game resorts to challenges of skill, death/failure must be possible even if it impedes the story. So in a game like the Fate of Atlantis, and other adventure games, and any story driven game, it’s better when those moments are simply removed altogether.


It’s fitting that the adventure genre has seen a recent resurgence. From the popularity of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games, to Telltale Games’ episodic adventures, to the release of the updated The Secret of Monkey Island, to the re-release of many old LucasArts adventure games on Steam, it’s clear that this genre is far from dead. Their user interfaces may be antiquated, their graphics may be terrible, but since these games are driven by their puzzles and stories, they become timeless in a way no shooter can ever be.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.

Max Payne is looking pretty bad lately.


Of course, Max hasn’t lead the easiest life, but Rockstar’s latest screen shots of the two-fisted gunman indicate that some of that hard living is legitimately beginning to show.  Max is getting balder, bigger, and less beautiful by the moment.


It isn’t as if Max needs to be pretty.  What hard boiled hero has ever been able to lay claim to that particular attribute?  But, given that Max’s image is one that could at least theoretically be saved from the ravages of time (since rendered images don’t tend to suffer the ill effects of wrinkeles and weight gain), Rockstar’s choice to go ahead and allow time to leave its mark on their anti-hero is an interesting one.  It is also a choice that lacks a great many precedents in the medium of video games.


Certainly, Hideo Kojima also chose to age the hero of the Metal Gear Solid series.  Like Max, Snake in his last foray into the stealth action genre looked much the worse for wear as he confronted both a new global threat but also had to contend with his own mortality.


These couple of examples, though, tend to fly in the face of conventional serializing in the video game industry.  Most heroes and anti-heroes that get the opportunity to appear in multiple titles have a tendency to perhaps “evolve” in appearance, but they rarely do more than receive an update to their look rather than begin to look their age.  Instead, characters like Lara Croft and Mario are treated as icons, images that are recognizable and emblematic of whatever they are intended to heroically represent—be that sexy, empowered femininity or working class sticktuitiveness.


In considering the aging of characters in serial formats, it occurred to me that this same tendency to age some characters and to leave timelessly iconic other kinds of characters is also a tendency in comic books.  While I am being gravely reductionist in this observation, there has always seemed to me to be a general tendency to approach the handling of the aging super hero in two different ways by the two major comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics.


The staple DC characters, who generally are much older than those belonging to Marvel, are usually represented in a timeless fashion.  Bruce Wayne, while having existed since 1939, remains (barring out of continuity material, like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight) seemingly forever trapped in some late-30s to late 40s version of himself.  Superman and Wonder Woman, who resemble minor deities in some way anyway, likewise remain perpetually beautiful despite similar post-World War II origins and despite their stories in serial form running regularly every month for nearly 70 years.


Many Marvel characters (at least around their point of origin, the early 1960s) tend to have experienced slightly different relationships to Father Time.  Spider-Man’s stories began with a Peter Parker still awkwardly attempting to navigate the hallways of his high school.  But Spidey’s continued adventures over the next couple of decades are backgrounded by a clear progression in time: Peter’s graduation, his entry into college, and even his eventual marriage (which, as I understand it was annulled through the intervention of a demonic deus ex machina, which may undermine my point a bit—Spidey seems to have stabilized like Bruce Wayne at some perpetual near middle age at some point fairly recently).  In other words, though, generally speaking following Spider-Man’s progress as a character over the decades also allowed readers to watch the effects of time on his alter ego, leaving Spidey less like an immortal icon and something more like a relatable human being.


It seems to me that DC’s lack of the representation of aging in their characters and Marvel’s tendency to allow characters like the Fantastic Four to age at least a bit (the marriage of Reed and Sue Richards and the eventual transformation of the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman are likewise emblematic of a maturation process in their characters) are related in some sense to the philosophies that each company has in regards to their characters.  DC Comics is generally interested in a romantic vision of a hero that is indeed iconic and timeless, representing larger principles like truth, justice, and the American Way, while Marvel is generally interested in more realistic and flawed characters that struggle with life in ways recognizable and comprehensible (once again, I realize that this is a broad characterization, and I can certainly think of exceptions in both comic book lines to these ideas, but my claim is one that I think is generally reasonable in considering the two companies’ approaches but simply not one without exception).


Returning to video game characters then, one might consider in this context the interests of game designers in keeping Lara and Mario ageless while allowing other characters like Max and Snake to indicate noticeable changes in their appearance as time and their series move forward.  Certainly, Lara Croft, like many larger than life representations of femininity in the arts, is almost unable to be aged.  Sex symbols are ruined in a culture that views “women of a certain age” as undesirable.  Lara, however, is in part intended to represent an iconic form of beauty that parallels this ideal notion of youthful beauty.  Likewise, Mario as a working class hero would suffer from being rendered in a geriatric form.  No one wants an arthritic plumber to look at that busted sink, we need someone strong and vital to do such dirty jobs (oh, and to kick turtles).  In that sense games in the Tomb Raider series and the countless titles bearing Mario’s names are ones interested in ideal heroes that represent ideals big, broad, and timeless.


However, Max and Snake occupy game worlds eminently more wed to time as they deal with personal, social, and political issues bound to the periods that they emerge from.  Unlike the explorer interested in antiquities whose adventures give nods to history but stand outside those actual historical events or the plumber who explores completely fantastical settings that are bound to no recognizable time, like mushroom kingdoms and even outer space, Max and Snake find themselves in much grimmer, grimier, and decaying worlds that clearly cannot escape the history crumbling around them.  As a result, characters like Max and Snake, despite their often extraordinary circumstance, still come off as characters that are a little bit more familiar and understandable to us, who as mortals and not gods likewise have to come to grips with time and history.


Rockstar has generally been good at creating these sorts of realistic mythologies (which sounds like an oxymoron, but I think a still reasonable description of the kind of fantastic but still historically and politically grounded worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series).  Recurring minor characters in the Grand Theft Auto games have allowed Rockstar to show that time operates in the worlds that they build.  From the balder and paunchier Ken Rosenberg appearing in the 1990s in San Andreas formerly as a slightly more vital, if completely neurotic coke head in the 1980s in Vice City to witnessing the dismemberment of Phil Cassidy in Vice City having only known him as an armless vet in the later decade represented in GTA III, GTA characters bear witness to the consequences of time on their characters and create a more realistic sense of who characters are as people, not emblems, than, perhaps, other gaming worlds often do.


This generally bodes well for Rockstar’s approach to a well seasoned Max Payne as he is a character that seems well suited to a more realistic sensibility.  Despite the bullet time balletics that are the hallmark of the series, Max is a character evocative of both sympathy and disdain.  He is not a character that represents or allows for simplistic and one dimensioanl analysis.  Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009
Just a little link aggregating.
From girlgamers.co.uk

From girlgamers.co.uk


The usual BPM for this week got posted a bit earlier than usual, but you can check back here if you missed it.


As a substitute though, I thought I’d aggregate a few links to the growing discussion about video games that specifically target female gamers. An excellent post at Wired highlights some of the top contenders for most awkward thing to teach a young girl.


The games listed in the article vary in subject matter from using clothes and behavior to be accepted by the “Pretty Committee” to revolving around trying to get a boyfriend. Other titles only allow the female character to advance by purchasing clothes and jewelry. A similar post at Brainy Gamer summarizes the issue nicely:


Most video games for girls send a steady flow of narrow images and self-limiting notions about how to succeed in today’s culture. They reinforce all the worn-out essentialist tropes: be beautiful, be fashionable, be popular. If parents want to worry about the messages kids receive from video games, they should pay more attention to these.


Other than the inherent nature of the media a person playing these games are exposed to, it is hard to say what kind of effect these games may have. Craig A. Anderson, who is one of the psychologists arguing in favor of a connection between violence and video games, points out in a FAQ, “all games teach something, and that ‘something’ depends on what they require the player to practice.” Anderson is outlining how both positive and negative behavior is taught through games in that quote, but the potential for negative behavior outside of just the violence that he addresses is very real. A child who constantly acts out, achieving success through purchasing clothes and behaving how their friends want them to might be, absorbs some strange lessons.


These question are further complicated by the fact that these types of games aren’t even considered particularly popular in their target demographic. A post at Feminist Gamers points out that a survey at the Institute of Adolescent Health found that girls ranked Grand Theft Auto as their favorite game. It was followed closely by The Sims, which allows female characters to be or do just about anything. Considering that even the most violent games are just empowerment fantasies, it isn’t surprising that these can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of gender.


One of the ideas that Ian Bogost outlines in Unit Operations is that our relationship with games work as a sort of response to the game’s world. That is, we look at how the game is depicting reality and contrast that with our own perspective. The things that we can do in the game that conflict with how we believe the world works generates an emotional reaction. In a game like Grand Theft Auto, my reaction to stealing a car is one of excitement because I personally could never do that. There are moral reasons for this but also social concerns that intervene like law, friends, and concern for hurting another person by taking their car. It’s fun to do it in the game because of the conflict that the activity has with my perception that what I’m doing is not possible normally.


The issue with a child playing one of these games revolves around the question of which misconception about reality is easier to correct. An adult would reasonably be able to correct a twelve year old child’s misconceptions about violence seen in a video game. But a young girl believing that the best way to make friends is through buying clothes and being pretty might be more impactful.


Put another way, you might be better off with your kid playing Grand Theft Auto after all.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 10, 2009
Does the lack of a head-up display make a game more immersive?

The traditional heads-up display is more and more being treated as an unwanted intrusion on the gameplay experience. Players need the information displayed, but the HUD can sometimes be distracting. Many developers try to do away with it, hoping that will make their game more immersive, and different games take different routes with different results.


Far Cry 2 and Uncharted: Drakes’s Fortune have traditional HUDs, but try to hide them as much as possible. In both games the HUD only appears in certain situations, and then fades out of sight when it’s not needed. Far Cry 2 shows the typical health and ammo, but the health meter only shows up when the player is hurt or uses a syrette to heal, while the ammo only appears when a gun is running low and must be reloaded soon. Uncharted takes things a step further by removing any health meter, instead the bright colors of the forest fade each time Drake is hurt until the screen is black and white, and then the color returns as his health automatically regenerates. The ammo appears whenever the player shoots.


Fading a HUD into and out of view depending on the situation is a fitting compromise for these two games. A HUD, no matter how small it is, attracts the eye, so by removing it until it’s necessary the player is more likely to notice the details in the environments. Since both games have impressive environments, it’s only natural that the player be encouraged as much as possible to admire it, and not spend the game looking at a mini map, health meter, or ammo counter. But this technique doesn’t solve the problem of immersion. The character can’t see the information in the HUD so there’s a clear disconnect between us and them. We can see things they can’t. Even if the information in the HUD is limited to only things the character would know, presenting it in a floating, immovable menu still creates that disconnect.


Dead Space has a simple yet clever way of dealing with its HUD. It takes all the standard elements of a heads-up display and treats them as if they actually exist in the game world. The health meter becomes a glowing tube on Isaac’s spine, and all other relevant information is projected into the world as a hologram in front of the character: Remaining ammo floats above our gun, and the inventory hovers in the air while we select items. When the camera turns the inventory turns as well. It isn’t an immovable menu pasted over the action; it’s part of the world.


Dead Space doesn’t treat the player as separate from the character; we can only see what Isaac sees.  Since the inventory is part of the game world, the game doesn’t pause when we turn on the hologram so there’s no menu for us to retreat to if the action becomes too tense. But this real-time item management is the only tangible effect the loss of a HUD has on the game. The dark ship isn’t suddenly scarier, the art direction and sound add more to the atmosphere than the floating inventory does. While Dead Space removes the traditional HUD all together, that loss doesn’t make the game any more immersive than it would have been otherwise.


Mirror’s Edge, on the other hand, implements a unique HUD, if it can even be called that, in a way that makes the game more immersive and even adds to Faith’s character. Like Dead Space, there are no menus pasted on the screen, though there is an optional reticule to prevent players from getting dizzy. The “HUD” comes in the form of red objects scatted about the environment. These objects point the player in the proper direction to help them navigate though the levels. It’s also worth noting that when Faith picks up a gun there’s no ammo counter, the number of bullets left is unknown to her and to us.


Highlighting the path is more than just a pointer for the player, it’s a visual representation of Faith’s natural path finding ability. We’re literally seeing the world through her eyes, not just seeing what she sees but how she sees it. Instead of just making the HUD a part of the world, we’re seeing things from an individual’s unique perspective. We are Faith. When we take control of her it becomes obvious that she’s a professional Runner. Yes, the game tells us so in a cut scene, but we also get to see that fact for ourselves as she picks a path though the rooftops. Even though we don’t have her talent we see it at work, and we see the results.


I don’t think the mere presence of a heads-up display, or lack thereof, affects a game in any meaningful way. More games are finding creative ways to avoid them, but as Dead Space proves, simply presenting a menu in a new way doesn’t make it anything more than a menu. Immersion comes from stepping into the shoes of a character, an idea that Mirror’s Edge embraces to its full extent, and since playing it I can’t help but wonder how other game characters see the world around them.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jul 9, 2009
A fleshing out of the current state of narrative in video games.
From www.the-feral-cats.blogspot

From www.the-feral-cats.blogspot


The relationship between plot and video games has always been an awkward one. Almost every single game out today can be isolated from its story and explained in terms of its design or vice-versa. I can tell you the plot of GTA IV without referencing the game design once. I can also explain a Mario game without mentioning the Princess. The game design doesn’t need the plot to be fun or engaging and the plot certainly doesn’t need interactivity screwing around with its authorial nature. Yet there are a huge variety of games that try to make it work, everything from arcade shooters, board games, simulations and narrative heavy adventure games that propose a wide variety of ideas on how a game’s plot should work with its design. The theory of how to connect the two sides of the experience, narrative and design, is something that is unique for each game. What are some ways to keep the design and plot working together?


From www.howstuffworks.com

From www.howstuffworks.com


When you are combining design and narrative the first thing you have to accept is that both mediums, which can stand alone, are going to have to sacrifice key elements. A plot in a video game does not have a narrative arc. You can’t control the pace of the story and thus you can’t control how the narrative is progressing. The player might get lost, quit the game, go collect random items, or just be trying to get a high score at that particular moment. A game design, once you combine it with a plot, is no longer a dynamic process. Certain elements of the game are going to be set in stone no matter what the player says or does. To give the classic argument, the plot of a football game is dynamic. Anything could potentially happen within the confines of the process. Once you insert a plot, certain things are always going to be present. This football player is always going to have this reaction to a play, this coach is always going to say this particular thing at half-time under certain conditions. Whether it’s a highly linear game or an emergent narrative with lots of vignettes scattered around a world, the plot of a game can at best only be altered a finite number of ways. An essay by Jim Bizzochi argues that the distinction with games comes from identifying what types of immersion they are creating. One type of immersion is the ‘suspension of disbelief’, which requires a narrative arc because you have to tightly pace and control what the viewer is seeing for it to happen. The essay goes on to outline several other forms of immersion, such as “challenge-based immersion” from a game design or “imaginative immersion” from a plot. The trick is that once you combine the two you have to start aiming for a different kind of immersion from the traditional ones like preventing disbelief.


Gears of War, Epic Games

Gears of War, Epic Games


Another essay from Bizzocchi and colleague Douglas Grant highlights the basic hybrid that plot and game design create when merged. You get a Joseph Campbell monomyth. The hero rises up, collects artifacts, overcomes challenges, and returns home to save the day. The characters and development cycle in these stories are convenient for the needs of the game design because they are typically static. An epic hero does not change, there is no real rebirth occurring. Instead they simply become more aware or informed about themselves. Achilles at the end of the Iliad is essentially the same person from the beginning. The events of the book do not personally change him. An epic poem or myth does not depend exclusively on a narrative arc since most portions of it can be read in any order assuming you’ll follow one of the shorter stories. Myths and legends are particularly ripe for conversion into video games because they also revolve around activities. You can explain a huge fight with a Cyclops or a sacred beast in a brawler easily enough. A different approach is to still adhere to this convention but instead develop a plot by having the game be about other characters. Nick Dinicola explains that in aGears of War 2 the main character of the game is actually Dom. Marcus is, like the player controlling him, mostly an observer. Far Cry 2 is essentially the story of the Jackal and his approach to violence in Third World countries. The solution of these games is to keep the player fully immersed in the game design while they observe a plot which, because they are not the focus, can be appreciated independently.


The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios

The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios


Yet it is possible to successfully merge narrative and game design so long as you are able to pace the two experiences in conjunction with one another. One of the greatest success stories of a game doing this is Starbreeze’s aThe Darkness. The opening of the game is pure shooting, giving the player a chance to engage and learn about the game design. The plot is fairly typical and easy to grasp with no major events until a little bit before the half-way marker. The point is that the developers know that the first thing the gamer is going to want is to play the game and they give that to them. When the tedium of shooting, collecting hearts, and other powers starts to grind is when they let the plot kick in. Once a player is fairly familiar with the game, they’re going to be more receptive to story because they don’t have to concentrate as much. The Darkness mixes plot and game design by also fleshing characters out with countless tiny vignettes that are snuck in at every chance. The protagonist, whose change is characterized by personal loss, is has numerous monologues while the game is loading. His condition is reflected in the design as a character dependent on a demon who is slowly taking control of him. The game’s real elegance doesn’t come from the clever plot or game design, it’s how they work together. When the game is really challenging, they don’t bother with story. When the game’s challenge is fairly easy, they let the characters and story have their time where so that they can be better appreciated.


From Immortal Defense

From Immortal Defense


There are other techniques for merging the two mediums besides just pacing plot and game design together. You can just create a series of moments where the two reflect one another. Final Fantasy IV melds game design with narrative by having a key character betray your party. In the plot it’s a hurtful moment, in the game design you’re down a key member in the middle of a very difficult dungeon. Bioshock’s Little Sisters are a symbolic choice that represents the overarching narrative: in a perfect Ayn Rand society would you choose to be altruistic or selfish? Horror games like Silent Hill 2 or Eternal Darkness both rely on the player not knowing what to do and scaring them through a hostile game design. Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico rely on solitude and lack of plot to create a simple but powerful narrative. Some games create their design first and then deliver a static narrative that explores the symbolic and literal implications of constantly doing such an activity like the indie gem Immortal Defense. Combining the two means that new storytelling techniques must be developed that appreciate the strengths of both artistic mediums and does not let one or the other dominate.


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