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Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010
Bill Murray's Groundhog Day is like Bioware RPGs. When the plot is over, all you can do is go back to the start. If you die, you get sent back to a different part to try again.

Video games face a lot of interesting problems whenever they want to tell a coherent story. You need an enemy that does not create any moral dilemmas if you slaughter them wholesale. The main character has to be dramatically important to the point of ludicrous. They also need to have a blank enough personality that the average person can project onto them. Even the touchstones of game narrative have convoluted plot holes. Bioshock stops making sense after the third act depending on your choices. Uncharted 2 might be remarkable for having good writing and acting but there is still a drastic difference between Nathan Drake the character and Nathan Drake the person slaughtering hundreds of soldiers. Even these games ignore fundamental elements of gameplay like loading your saved game, artificial interactions, or the natural emotional distance that all players have from the consequences of their conduct. It’s funny then that there is already a movie which has tackled most of these issues by presenting a protagonist who is stuck in a time loop.


Groundhog Day is a remarkably pliant work of art. Bill Murray (Phil Connors) is stuck repeating February 2nd in a small town in Pennsylvania. There’s no explanation for it, he just wakes up over and over to the same events constantly. An article over at suite101.com points out numerous religious interpretations of the film (Kerri Carpenter, Groundhog Day: A Classic Comedy With A Moral Legacy”, suite101.com, 27 Jan 2010). Catholics see it as a parable for Purgatory, Buddhists identify with the themes of self-reflection that Murray’s character experiences because he can never change the world due to the time loop. Life always resets, and no one has any memory of the things Murray did except him. Mario Sesti points out that the film’s character arc is seeing Murray’s changing relationship with this situation (Groundhog Day The Movie: Buddhism and Me”, P.S. A Column on Things, 20 Jun 2008). Murray is stuck in the time loop long enough to learn fluent French, the piano, memorize every person in town, every event experienced in the day, and every reaction to his conduct. Sesti comments, “[Murray] becomes increasingly less the hostage of his small-town world and more its creator.”


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Friday, Jun 18, 2010
As worlds become more open they demand more attention, and there’s a clear trade-off between story and environmental details.

Last week I wrote about how the open world of Red Dead Redemption is constrained by its focus on story. Soon after, a friend started playing Mass Effect 2 and I realized that New Austin is practically a sandbox of imagination compared to the world that BioWare created, but both games still fall way short of the freedom offered in Fallout 3. These three games represent the full spectrum of open worlds, and each developer is a master of their respective type.


BioWare
The worlds of BioWare are “open” only in the barest sense of the word. We’re given a group of missions and we can choose what order to do them in, but the missions themselves are very directed. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age games are structured like an old school JRPG. There are towns, maps filled with shops that resupply us, and people that need our help. There are also dungeons, maps filled with enemies to fight, and there’s a stylized overworld that connects them all together.


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Thursday, Jun 17, 2010
The fake killing is old hat. The helping fake people sell fake medicine to other fake people, for whatever reason, that really got to me.

As I mentioned last week, I’m devoting myself to compiling a catalog of moving experiences from video games in aid of adding a few of my own bricks to the mountain-sized edifice of evidence for the obvious fact that video games can be art. After that post, my friend Ben Mack sent me this: “Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You has great quantitative data to suggest video games as Hegelian art objects, ‘An art object is anything that is a catalyst to an altered state of consciousness from which one never fully returns.’” That’s pretty damn good, and plus it references Hegel, so clearly we’re on solid philosophical ground here. It very much applies to the game that I’ve been playing most of late, Red Dead Redemption.


Next week I’ll talk about the ending of the game, which I view as a clear artistic triumph, but I want to give everyone more time to finish it. Additionally, we talk about it at length over the next two Moving Pixels Podcast episodes. However, Red Dead isn’t a perfect game by any means, even setting aside the bugs and occasional open world weirdness. The narrative is far from tight and focused, and the story is meandering and occasionally self-indulgent to the point where I know that some players were turned off by it. But even in the places where the game takes false steps, it still creates multiple moving moments that very much fit into the above definition.


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Tuesday, Jun 15, 2010
You can’t just tell a player to care about someone because they’re your friend or it will save the world. Spoilers abound.

Of all the things that Indigo Prophecy represents in its contribution to video games, consistency is not one of them. A bold and clever experiment at times, the game’s heavily authored narrative fails to sustain its coherence after one plot twist and bizarre character interaction too many. Yet there are still a lot of interesting moments in the game worth focusing on, including the moment where the game becomes a train wreck.


The game design is basically a subjective adventure game interface with random mini-games. The chief limitation to your actions is what the designer will allow you to do or touch, there is no real agency outside of this conceptual space. Discovering what you can interact with means walking around the room until the options light up. What’s interesting is the game’s willingness to let these normally limited interactions include the mundane. For each character, you can walk around their apartment, fix a drink, play guitar, watch TV, or a variety of other tasks. The fridge and cabinets are all operable along with the bathroom. Iroquis Pliskin points out that these moments, “succeed in communicating this idea that your protagonist is a regular human being who’s trying to cope with the bizarre events that just transpired. It’s the most successful sequence in the entire game” (“In Praise of the Mundane”, Versus Clu Clu Land, 12 February 2009).


Tagged as: indigo prophecy
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Monday, Jun 14, 2010
We consider how Bethesda merges a retro American ideal with their post-apocalyptic vision of an America "after the bomb" in Fallout 3.

This week the Moving Pixels podcast explores the American Nightmare that is the Capital Wasteland.  We consider how Bethesda merges a retro American ideal with their post-apocalyptic vision of an America “after the bomb” in Fallout 3.


From the birth of the player character into this American wilderness to the role of the first person perspective in seeing this new world, our regular podcast contributors analyze the quirks and curiosities of this kind of game world.


Tagged as: bethesda, fallout 3
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