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Text:AAA
Thursday, Nov 13, 2008
The post-mortem reactions and thoughts on a short indie game about death.

The Graveyard is an art game about being old. More specifically, it imposes a series of motion limitations in conjunction with an interruptible cutscene and potential random event. The motion limitation is the limping slow pace of the old woman you control. The interruptible cutscene is when she crosses through a graveyard, sits on a bench, and muses about life while a song about death plays. The random event is that she could drop dead at any moment during this exchange. The game is over when you stand up and make it back to the gates of the grave yard.


The game came out in March and received quite a bit of press when it did, so this post is late to the party. What prompted this was a run-down by the company concerning their experiences with making and releasing the game. The objective of the game, as stated by the developers, “In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure. We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it, interesting and moving.” Accomplishing this meant animating the old woman in such a way that her pace was slow and tedious. On all sides are tombstones while all the branching paths lead nowhere in particular. You go to the bench and the woman reflects about her life and you observe this. Before and after the sequence there is no music and the soundscape is mostly birds and your slow foot steps.


The reaction to this was fairly interesting. Manifesto Games, who represent countless indie games and distribute them for bargain prices, did not respond when asked to host the game. Steam, run by Valve and home to many classic old titles, was not interested. Even Jonathon Blow, maker of Braid refused to host it at his Experimental Games Workshop. The developers explain, “To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because “it is not a game“…The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines. There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn’t find a clear message. It’s as if they, even when looking at art, couldn’t shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.” In other words, because the player lacks the ability to affect the experience through game design, it is not considered a video game.


It’s easy to get pissy about these titans of the ‘Games as Art’ movement shunning a title that goes for such a remarkable experience but they also have their own visions about what direction that movement should be heading. The game is, at best, a piece of interactive fiction and attempts at poesy do not necessarily justify its failure to use the power of choice which makes video games profound. Even the Adventure Company’s Deirdra Kiai complained about the lack of any real understanding about the old woman and being irritated at the game’s slow pace. The issue it raises, both to the developers and the audience, is whether or not revulsion and distaste is a valid emotional response to a video game experience. Kiai complains that she wanted something affirming or interesting about the old woman to make the experience have some kind of meaning that dignified old age, the indie critics preferred Passage because of how the game design created sympathy for the characters as they grew older. Is their failure to find these emotions and meanings in the game a critical failure, considering it sought to explore the contradictions and mixed feeling we have about old age?


Perhaps not. Experiencing that getting old means you don’t have the ability to waltz around the graveyard anymore (and thus isn’t in the game) is disconcerting for most. Having the old woman’s song be little more than musings about frailty and people that have passed away hardly generates empathy. The fact that throughout this experience you may succumb to the very thing all around you, death, hardly allows for much of an emotional response except cynical fear. If there is a flaw to this game, it’s that it does not provide much for the player to experience except the feelings of frustration that Kiai had.


And yet, I am not sure I would expect much else from a game about old age.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008
Video games actually carry many of the expressive properties of language itself.


In a piece I wrote about a year ago on the art of writing in video games, I tacked on at the very end that writing in a video game was more than just creating a setting or series of options, it was ultimately about designing a language. I technically didn’t really know what that meant when I wrote it. The phrase just struck me as correct and after batting it around a few forums that game designers frequent I figured it wasn’t utterly inane. No one told me it was wrong, in other words. What technically inspired the phrase was reading a few articles while researching about personalizing the player’s roles in games. You give actions and conduct that are relevant to the role the player is inhabiting instead of just tacking it onto the same old stab & shoot routine. Edge has an interesting article that goes into this by having a movie director gives his take on the subject. It’s not about giving your character the ability to jump around the world you’ve created, it’s about acting and behaving like the person in the game would. Once you combine that with the features of choice and player input, it is an easy leap to say that when a game is coercing you to act in a certain way, it is just as much encouraging you to respond to things in a certain way. It’s not exactly talking to another person…but it’s not just rolling dice or pressing shoot either.


One of the curious features Clint Hocking has been pointing out about Far Cry 2 is that it allows players to express themselves. Michael Abbott pointed out that on many levels the word “express” is exactly the way a video game feels for a player. That act of participation, of interactivity in a restricted setting, allows for a kind of weird emotional output. Yet what are the inherent virtues of Far Cry 2 that merit this term? The player is in a vast, open landscape where they can make numerous decisions about the plot and their tactics. The numerous choices the player is making are what Hocking argues merit calling something expressive. It connects back to what Sid Meier famously said was the critical principle of any video game: it’s a series of interesting choices. Once a game starts to feature hundreds upon hundreds of choices though, they become something greater than their individual parts. The player is now potentially able to make unique or unforeseen combinations. And as games feature even more choices and options, the capacity for the player to create a combination unique unto themselves becomes a reality. The game becomes a language that the player can use to express themselves by making unique sets of choices. This view is not dependent on games with numerous options either. Even very basic communications are occurring in even the simplest games. As Justin Keverne notes in an essay on game vocabulary, we are forming a sentence of intentions just by playing. When I press forward, in conjunction with my aiming, I am telling the game to walk there. Shoot this person. Duck. The meaning of these instructions is defined in the context with which they are used.


There’s an excellent essay that mentions this idea by Nis Bojin. He uses the Wittgenstein theory of language games and retools it into a method for analyzing words that apply to game design. You don’t need to be a liberal arts major to follow the basic points of the essay. My extremely simplified explanation of language games goes like this: the debate about “free will” or “morality” is inherently dependent on your circumstances and perspective. Part of those circumstances are the actual language you’re using to communicate those concepts. The literal word itself has a varying set of meanings depending on the analogies, phrasing, and linguistic metaphors being used. Trying to isolate those concepts into a universal norm defeats the word’s purpose because it’s setting is what gives it meaning. Put differently, words get meaning from the context of where and how you’re saying them. They cannot be isolated from that without losing their original meaning. Bojin comments, “Being thoroughly entrenched in the language of a given language-game is to be bathed in the conventions, accepted modalities and ideologies that support a way of knowing and taking part in the language-game itself.” The leap we are making is that this is the exact same thing a video game does: create conventions, choices, and settings that the player then acts in relation with. They are expressing themselves within the confines of a language that the game creates with its various options. Bojin goes into very different territory after these initial observations, discussing the relationship of words like ‘play’ and ‘grinding’ as players and designers influence one another culturally, but it’s a very interesting read.


The initial complaint I had to this idea came from a blogger who goes by the name mummifiedstalin. He pointed out the ludonarrative dissonance dilemma, that one is not always or even often capable of expressing oneself in a game. This leads ultimately to a semantics argument about expression, because if you take Wittgenstein into account then our capacity to communicate revolves around the enormous and massive “game” that is our language. There are dozens of ways to express the same thing in a language, depending on the circumstances and ways the speaker wishes to interact with their surroundings. In comparison, video games have far less choices but that does not rule out calling them ‘tiny languages’. Their size then being directly proportional to the number of options given to a player. It can be tough to pick up on this in a mostly linear game like God of War because it has so few options that one can’t really appreciate the ‘games as language’ argument. That’s a game that falls under Hideo Kojima’s ‘games as museums’ design theory, and is more about delivering a series of set experiences that the player roleplays through. On the other hand, games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Far Cry 2 on a greater level represent enough choices compounded together that the first indications of a language start to form. As other titles like Spore increase in complexity through add-ons and fan made materials, this will only become more evident. Games are themselves, despite their confined modes of expression,  languages.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Nov 9, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-11-10...

On Tuesday, November 11, many educational institutions and places of employment in the United States will give their students and employees a day off for Veterans Day, as the day is set aside for the recognizing of the contributions and sacrifices that our armed forces make for the sake of the rest of us.  A pair of releases this week will have an awful lot of people wishing they could take the entire week.


First up is the release most associated with Veterans Day, a game whose Tuesday release is obviously no accident: Call of Duty: World at War.  Honestly, I think it’s a risky move for Activision to be releasing a fifth Call of Duty game even as the fourth in the series remains the top Xbox Live draw.  The release of a new edition of the game, while it will undoubtedly sell gobs of copies based solely on the success of its predecessor, will likely split the Call of Duty online audience, which may well generate some confusion as to which game is the “must-have” of the online shooter group.  This isn’t even to mention that Activision has gone back to Treyarch—if you’ll remember, they developed the oft-maligned Call of Duty 3—for this one, and Treyarch has gone back to World War II for their source material.  Despite all of the caveats, however, there’s simply no way that any online shooter fan will be without this game come Tuesday.


Wait a couple of days, though, and you may notice that the streets will be a little quieter, the traffic a little lighter…as Wrath of the Lich King finally (finally!) arrives on Thursday.  The latest World of Warcraft expansion has been hyped and anticipated for so long, it’s actually something of a wonder it’s been able to maintain the sort of anticipation that’ll lead to the millions of sales come Thursday, but it has and then some.  I don’t need to sell this one—it’ll fly off the shelves no matter what I tell you.


Past those two utterly tremendous releases, the DS has a few releases that might just be enough to pique your interest.  Populous DS is probably something I’ll end up with, simply because the thought of randomly popping hills up underneath people I don’t like while on the subway is terribly appealing.  My Stop Smoking Coach with Allen Carr is an incredibly intriguing release, in that I’ll be curious to see a) whether it sells, and b) whether any testimonials start coming out saying that it actually works.  It sounds utterly ridiculous, but for a nicotine-addicted gamer, it may be the ticket to sticking to a plan.  And there’s Tecmo BowlTecmo Bowl!  It’s almost enough to make you forget that there’s another DS Guitar Hero on its way too.


Oh jeez, I just realized I went four paragraphs without mentioning Mirror’s Edge.  Good Lord.  This is truly a great year.


What are you playing this week?  Or are you just broke from buying all of the other stuff that’s come out?  Let us know, and while you’re thinking, check out the list of releases and the pair of trailers after the jump!


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 5, 2008
A few sex games on the internet and their merits. Warning: video (embedded after the jump) is NSFW.

In response to the fuss caused by the Mass Effect “Sexbox” controversy, a lot of bloggers and YouTube Critics were quick to note that the game hardly features any real sex. A little bit more digging however, and a frank reality began to strike some people: it’s not like sex has ever been handled maturely in video games anyways. Daniel Floyd’s excellent video on the history of sex in games makes a simple conclusion: if sex is an expression of love, then we need to handle the topic maturely and allow players to express in appropriate ways. Which I heartily support and believe sounds great in theory.


It’s just that I can’t think of too many times in an artistic medium where the first forms of sex depicted were done for any reason other than…depicting sex. Thinking of that as an ends rather than a means may be crude, but it’s also a bit more realistic in terms of how one gets the ball rolling. There are several interesting sex games out on the web now that vary from the tasteless to the tasteful that explore this. Starting with the tasteful is the free to download Dark Room Sex Game. Using the keyboard or Wiimote (provided you have a bluetooth rig), you have to develop a rhythm with the moaning in the game until you can induce an orgasm. The game has no graphics and is instead entirely based on sound and in the Wiimote’s case, vibrating. You press keys until you match the pace of moaning with the partner, trying to synchronize so they can have an orgasm. The game gets much more interesting once you use the co-op or orgie-op modes of play as each partner has to coordinate the moaning with the person standing next to them. It’s an interesting game because it responds to Floyd’s chief complaint about sex in games being belittling to women thus far. Playing the game with your partner (or orgy members) is going to result in requests to ‘slow down’ or ‘speed up’, etc. Rather than the sex being a one-sided affair, it instead takes on a supportive and team-oriented game design. I’m not trying to give myself an orgasm, I’m trying to give one to the other person.


Back on the subject of tastelessness is the recently released indie game BoneTown. Acting like a cross between Grand Theft Auto and a Ron Jeremy Sex Guide (he’s actually in the game), BoneTown is basically an exercise in masculine empowerment. You go on missions to improve your style, cash, and ‘balls’ power. This, in response, lets you increasingly score with more women and pleasure them better. I’m not going to really defend the game one way or another since I haven’t played it, but it has good production values and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It would probably be more respectable if it let you play as a woman, but that’s a psychological mirror even my male, job before social-life, mid-twenties singledom brain might not be able to handle responsibly. But at least the game is honest about the RPG mechanics it’s using and it beats the creepiness of two World of Warcraft players arguing over whose sword is better. At the very least, it gives people something to say whenever a deranged parent or news network is raving about some barely nude kissing sequence in a videogame. “That’s not a video game about sex. This is.”


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Text:AAA
Monday, Nov 3, 2008
A breakdown of 2K's methods of overcoming ludonarrative dissonance in a very dark, conflicted plot. Spoilers abound.


Clint Hocking once used the phrase ludonarrative dissonance to describe the times when what you’re doing in a video game in terms of the design does not merge with the plot. It’s an old post and I hate to drag out the Bioshock analysis but it could just as easily reference GTA IV or any other game. What do you do when what the game design and thus player input allows does not really make sense for the character? 2K’s The Darkness explores this question by creating a three-way relationship between the protagonist, the demon controlling him, and the player. Yes, the game’s lip animation is a bit off and the Trent Reznor-looking protagonist is a bit dated. But past the Uncanny Valley is a very sharp game design that draws the player in and supports the narrative. Given that the game is about a man losing his soul for the sake of revenge, it is quite a feat that by the end the player is just as guilty as the protagonist.


The game opens with what will become the principle theme throughout the game: the player is dragged into increasingly dangerous actions that he can only loosely control. You awaken in the backseat of a car with a driver who is fleeing the cops in the Lincoln Tunnel. As the driver steers into incoming traffic while maniacally laughing, the player is immediately frustrated at not being in control while insane mobsters are operating the car. The fact that the game design lets you swing the camera and take a few shots before the crash only reinforces this helplessness. The game then transgresses into being an FPS similar to the Call of Duty duck and cover play style. You have no explicit health bar, ammo must be checked by tapping a button, and things proceed generically until the demon (The Darkness) manifests itself. Although it has been a weird voice-over for the opening levels of the game, when it takes over Jackie’s body control is literally jerked from the player. The swarm of mobsters that have surrounded you are horribly killed…but it’s all done from a Half-life 2-esque perspective that looks exactly like how we play the game. It again establishes the theme of having control yanked away from the player, only this time it is now performing actions that the player themselves, within the context of the game design, are capable of doing. Contrast that to a cutscene of Kratos doing a bunch of flips that would be impossible to implement in regular controls: the game design is flaunting your possession just as the character of the Darkness, narrative-wise is doing the same thing.


Alone this would be nothing but a fairly gimmicky narrative/game design device. What the game does is then flesh this violation of control out with a combination of Deus Ex-style dialogue sequences and load-screen diatribes. In regards to the latter, it’s simply the protagonist giving a short speech about his feelings towards the story. Imagine Bioware’s tactic of telling backstory in load screens taken to a much grander scale. Whether it’s the protagonist talking about being beaten by his Uncle or how much he loves his girlfriend, it gets in talking time without making the player sit still more than they would anyways. As for the dialogue sections, Jackie can move around New York City and receive various side quests from homeless people, old mobsters, and friends. What makes these extremely interesting is that there are no benefits in-game for doing these missions. You get some unlockable content that can be viewed if you quit (usually a comic book), but there’s no money, weapons, or change to the plot to be had by doing this. You are also expected to behave respectfully in-game. If you walk away while someone is talking, they get upset and ignore you. If you point a gun at them, they get offended. By having no reward for these somewhat demanding side-missions the game presents an interesting option: are you such a good person that you want to actually help someone for no personal benefit?


Yet having non-rewarding missions is just one way that the game explores your eventual self-destruction, it even goes so far as to present an option for sitting down and not killing people. Just think about an FPS featuring that and you appreciate what a bold move it is. It starts with the options presented with your interactions with Jackie’s girlfriend, Jenny. Since all of the loadscene diatribes are founded on Jackie talking to Jenny (in darkness), we already have begun to develop ideas about our relationship with her. That she isn’t there to respond facilitates the player putting their own impressions on her. When you actually do meet her, the player is confronted with explaining to her why he is in trouble with the mob and the people you’ve killed. The options are startlingly frank: ‘Protect her from the truth’ is one while ‘Tell her the truth’, if selected, puts the player into an incongruous position. Jackie doesn’t want to and instead lies. Whatever you tell Jenny, she immediately assures you that you’re not really a bad guy and invites you inside. Just as doing the side missions offers no real incentives in-game neither does hanging out with Jenny. All of the exchanges with her involve mostly standing or sitting doing nothing. The Darkness, frustrated at this downtime, will declare, “She reeks of innocence!” It potentially gives voice to the more violence-prone players, while those who think of Jackie as a decent guy caught up in some trouble will be more resistant. The only reward you get for sitting on the couch for an extended period is Jenny saying that she loves you and kissing you. Yet if you want, you can watch ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in its entirety in-game with her. What better analogy for Jenny’s belief in you, the rampaging protagonist, than Atticus Finch defending a man everyone else thinks is a rapist? She is the one person who thinks Jackie is worth redeeming.


 


While it doesn’t provide an option for pacifism, the game’s plot does emphasize that as Jackie’s bloodbath continues so does Uncle Paulie’s (the villain) wrath. As you wage a mob war with one another, your friends and family who you’ve been helping in the side missions get sucked into the mess. At one point, the player meets up with Jenny and sees the chaos left after Uncle Paulie has blown up your childhood home. All the while, the Darkness is making cruel comments and snide jokes, again echoing those players who would rather be shooting than listening to the story. It’s the dichotomy that the player is torn between: does one spend time developing selfless relationships or be a cold blooded killer? Is Jackie a decent person struggling against oppressors or is he just an asshole with a gun? The conduct to be either is possible. All of this culminates in what is probably one of the most tragic cutscenes ever to grace a videogame. Jenny is kidnapped and murdered in front of us. Again, it’s all Half-life 2 style and again, the Darkness has taken control from us. Claiming that “she was a burden, this is freedom”, it is a manifestation of removing that choice of staying with Jenny from the player. It is taking away the option of being a decent person. With her death, there is no longer a need for a game design with a happy ending or for anything but rampant destruction. There is no ludonarrative dissonance because our one source of options for non-violence (the only passive activity in the game is sitting with Jenny) has died. Plotwise, Jackie’s rampage is equally expected.


 


Jackie’s suicide because of losing Jenny yanks control from both the player and The Darkness and ends with him being placed in his own private hell. Rather than be irksome, it magnifies how upset Jackie is because again, in Half-Life 2 style, a gun is put to our mouth in as shocking a manner as Jenny’s loss. To Jackie Estacado and the player, Hell is a World War I battlefield. Once you collect yourself, you are put out on a mission to gain control of the Darkness so you can use its supernatural powers. Yet Estacado is eerily unwilling to explore the implications of The Darkness being just as responsible for Jenny’s death as Uncle Paulie. He instead needs those powers to get his revenge and throughout the game we are complicit in that necessity. Without the Darkness activated, we lack the shield it generates and will be ripped to shreds in most gunfights. You must accommodate the demon by destroying all of the lights so it can stay healthy. In order to level up the demon, you have to feed it the hearts of people you’ve killed. In this way the game design draws the player into actively feeding and supporting the Darkness, despite its damning nature, just as much as Estacado does. In the final moments of Hell, Jackie is even partially told how to free himself from the demon, but he isn’t interested. When the Darkness is finally weakened, the player can only merge with it so he can keep killing for revenge. It is a decision that would be bothersome for many people were it not for the fact that the game design has already made us utterly dependent on the creature. The ludonarrative dissonance is again circumvented in this moment because the game design has drawn us into Jackie’s decision to keep the demon so that we at least appreciate his motives. There is still one more person that needs killing.


The game design makes us complicit with the tragic ending because the Darkness is steadily gaining control of us with each death and consumed heart. The fact that you cannot become strong enough to survive without helping the Darkness makes this dilemma all the more difficult for the player. You have to do it to progress in the game and hunt down Uncle Paulie. In the final level of the game, the Darkness again takes control of Jackie, just as he did in the opening and with Jenny. As in those other moments, it is all actions the player himself can do such as killing swarms of people or taking down a helicopter. The Darkness literally robs the player of experiencing the last level by playing it for us. The final moments confront the player with a curious illusionary choice: kill Uncle Paulie and lose your soul to The Darkness or…nothing. You do not have any other alternative. Merging linear game design and plot, the final scene of the game forces the player to confront the truth. Sitting with Jenny was the only game option that didn’t involve killing, without her the player is just feeding the Darkness and losing the metaphorical war inside Jackie’s soul. In this way, the game design supports the linear narrative by providing motivation and necessity for the player that coincides with Jackie’s choices. When Jenny died, so did the choice we could have had in that final moment.


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