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Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010
A post cataloging the common design elements in three of Ubisoft's Imagine games.

This post was born when, while rummaging around in a bargain bin, I saw one of Ubisoft’s Imagine games. I’d heard of the games and knew they were big sellers, so I finally cracked and decided to see what they were all about. It only took a couple of hours to plow through, and when I finished, I was not really sure what to make of it. I picked up two more games in the series and had the same reaction. Playing games targeted towards women that are not designed with the assumption that the player is male is always a different experience. There are numerous interactive options and design aesthetics that I rarely ever see in other games. What I wanted to do with this post was to just catalogue the common design elements in three different Imagine games. There’s not much to debate about the game’s stereotyping, Ubisoft’s Vice-President of Marketing settles that issue when he explains the inspiration for the games was the high sales of the Pink DS (“Powering Ahead: Video Games”, CNBC.com, 23 Nov 2009). By making the initial titles focus on cooking, fashion, and childcare they tap into gender stereotypes of traditional forms of female play that Sara M. Grimes discusses on her blog. She writes, “Adults have long sought to contain children’s play, but girls’ play in particular, for more “useful” and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers” (“Imagine: [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]”, Gamine Expedition, 12 Dec 2009). 


The most consistent game design element in all of the Imagine games is the ability to decorate things. That seems to be true across the series, Aileen Cole’s critique of Imagine: Detective notices the feature is even in an Imagine game when it barely makes any sense (“Review: Imagine Detective (Nintendo DS)”, Die Hard Game Fan, 23 Sep 2009). In all three of the games that I played, there was no scoring factor related to decoration. That was strange to me, particularly in Imagine: Movie Star, where gameplay alternates between a weird Guitar Hero style and designing clothes. When a magazine asked me to design a sharp outfit for fall, it didn’t matter what I was wearing. So long as you change your outfit on every level (type, color, and pattern for each section of dress), the game rewards you with a perfect score. What’s even more curious is that these games are all either rehashes of older Japanese titles or independently created from one another. The primary consensus about girl games from all of these different groups is that there must be a decorating element and that it should be totally up to the player what constitutes being attractive.


Another theme that was present in all of the titles is having minimal to no fail state. While the Movie Star game ranks your ability to catch notes as they dropped, you would have to blatantly miss notes to get below an A. The Baby Sitter game works by performing mini-games that fill a happy baby bar. Nothing seems to happen if you just stare at the kid except that they gurgle and cry. The Doctor game has no fail state. You either follow the on-screen action or nothing happens at all. This trait isn’t unique to the Imagine series, it’s something that you see when developers try to make “casual” oriented Wii games. By confusing being accessible with being easy, numerous games intended for younger or inexperienced audiences become dull because there is no way to lose them.


All of the games require you to be female. The Movie Star game lets you fully adjust your avatar in terms of ethnicity, height, and weight (although this only consists of thin to really thin). I’m not in a position to judge how well it handles skin color but it’s controlled on a blending slide bar rather than just picking a pre-determined color. The other two games require you to be a white female. The doctor game puts you in the role of a blonde doctor just starting her own clinic named Abby while the babysitting game lets you pick your name as you start your college career. You study child care and education while making money babysitting on the side. On a side note, both games are pretty diverse in terms of NPCs by having you work for people from a wide variety of cultures.


Sexuality remains mostly unmentionable in the games. The movie star game expects you to go on hot dates to boost your career, but because these dates (along with acting, auditioning, and going out on the town) consist of catching notes while fashion pictures flash, the game never indicates your feelings one way or the other about those experiences. Your devotion to childcare is creepily absolute in the babysitting game. The doctor game did present a love interest in the form of a movie star named Tony. I didn’t like him. He never asked my avatar anything and every scene was just him babbling about himself. By contrast, the boyfriend in the Nancy Drew games is always willing to listen to me talk about the case and offer advice for solving puzzles.


Generally speaking, none of the games were very fun to play. In addition to criticisms about the lack of a fail state, they are all short and grind heavy. The doctor game randomly generates patients that you must diagnose and hock prescription drugs to. Doing so increases your level and . . . some sort of heart currency, both of which let you buy more equipment for your clinic and not have to outsource patient care. Patients all have the same dozen or so ailments and you always perform the same series of activities that you can’t lose. The baby sitting game is the same way. Once you have played with one baby, you have played with them all. The Movie Star game changes the songs and difficulty, but it’s always the same “catch the note” sequence or test to see if you can dress yourself. In a weird way, it destroys any fantasy that a person might have about the fun and excitement of these lifestyles once it devolves into familiarity and monotony. Heroine Sheik writes about the babysitting game, “What’s interesting is to see the role played in a structured, game format with preset gameplay rewards. Rock the cradle well, gain points. Forget to feed your charges, lose them. Oddly enough, what we’re being reminded of here is that motherhood itself—like gender—is a role to be played, not an inherent state. For such a sexist game, it’s a strangely feminist message” (Imagine Babyz: Playing Mother”, Heroine-Sheik.com, 10 Dec 2007).


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Monday, Mar 8, 2010
A salute to the games whose time commitments usually exceed a 40-hour work week.

Like comfort food, some video games seem made for winter. Not necessarily the season, but those situations like when a blizzard dumps 15 inches of snow in your city, forcing you into full-on hermit mode.


About 20 years ago, a game called Dragon Warrior forced NES-loving players to make a time commitment that far surpassed the usual hour or so that was required to beat Super Mario Bros.. The game required players to log in hours of time, traveling short distances in a huge world. The more you traveled, the stronger you got, the further you could travel. For a console game, Dragon Warrior was one of those games where a user could easily log in 20 hours before completion. It was a game that could only be completed during a long winter vacation stretch (or a summer vacation with a broken arm).


About ten years ago, the Nintendo 64 released its installment of the Zelda series, The Ocarina of Time. While technically not a role-playing game (the game was fairly linear in what you could accomplish), the game was a lush, beautiful masterpiece. For a college student with some time to kill, the first play through Ocarina was a great distraction between the Super Bowl and March Madness.


Of course, games (not including PC games) have only gotten more involved and required more out their players since the days of NES and N64. Perhaps no company has proven this more than Bethesda. Its Elder Scrolls series, first with Morrowind and later with Oblivion, had an almost overwhelming amount of paths for players to take. Not only was the primary quest a huge undertaking (players could assume that it would literally take days to get their character to a level where an instant death encounter with an adversary could be avoided), but smaller tasks like gathering various ingredients throughout the vast worlds to create a potion (finding out the mixture without a guide – well, some people have more patience than others) could guarantee an easy 40 to 60 hour time commitment.


Whether this time commitment is a worthy investment is subjective. But if you are looking for how these winter-killing games operate, look no further than Fallout 3, another Bethesda game. The first few hours (when your armor/strength is at its lowest) are almost maddeningly frustrating. You get bored, you try to venture further out into the game’s world where you meet a near instantaneous death. But as you slowly build up your power levels, you begin to get more engaged in the story. Upon hearing that I had just purchased Fallout 3, a coworker said that my social life would be almost non-existent for about two months.


This year it looks like the winter-killing game of the year is BioWare’s Mass Effect 2. Unlike Bethesda’s massive worlds of Oblivion and Fallout 3, Mass Effect‘s gameplay is much kinder in the instant gratification department. The game boasts a well-written storyline with a stellar voice talent team. The mix works so well that, like Avatar, you tend to forgive the fact that you’ve seen the central story played out dozens of times before in movies, books, and other video games. Upon finishing Mass Effect 2, I glanced at the final save log. Estimated time of play: 41 hours.


Games like Call of Duty and Halo have been criticized for their relatively short “main missions.” Pay no mind that almost a decade ago, a game that would take eight hours to complete was considered a lengthy game. Socially, these “winter killer” games definitely have their adverse effects. One month of Mass Effect 2 has made me five pounds pudgier and more sleep-deprived than normal. But these games can be viewed like that 900-page copy of Don Dellilo’s Underworld or that third attempt to finish The Lord of the Rings novels. It’s an undertaking that just seems appropriate for the months that force us inside. And though winter is coming to an end, I’m secretly hoping for one last blizzard so that I can finally get to level 20 on Fallout 3.


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Friday, Mar 5, 2010
We're not players in Heavy Rain so much as we are actors. We're meant to assume the roles of these characters, to think like them, and the controversial controls reflect that desire.

Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer recently played Heavy Rain, and had some interesting criticisms of it:


Heavy Rain situates a system between the player and the game that heavily mediates the player’s experience…It wants to immerse me in a realistic, character-driven story with detailed environments and atmospherics; but it also wants me to remain outside that experience, ever-vigilant for the next quick-response button-press. (Heavy Rain, Brainy Gamer, 24 February 2010)


It’s a common criticism of the game and one that I couldn’t disagree with more.


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Thursday, Mar 4, 2010

Spoiler Warning: This post gives away a spoiler that’s irrelevant to the story of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh but that is also the game’s most effective moment.


It’s the only time I really remember being scared in a video game. I’ve been startled by demons jumping out of monster closets in Doom 3. I’ve been creeped the hell out by Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I’ve screamed in alarm in Wing Commander while flying through an exploding kilrathi fighter only to slam at full speed into the suddenly revealed side of the freighter that I’m supposed to be escorting. There was that time that I was so angry that I broke my TV. But the only time that I remember being actually, really scared was while playing Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. And now it’s available for cheap and easy download at Good Old Games.


I was living in a tiny, badly lit apartment by the beach (so tiny that when they remodeled the place years later, they turned it into a laundry room). It wasn’t even night-time but rather a hot summer afternoon. I had the blinds drawn though, and the room glowed with that late-day amber light that you usually only find in Southern Gothic horror movies. On my 15 inch monitor, a full motion video horror story was playing out. It included monsters in copier rooms at the office, strained conversations with co-workers, and kinky sex. None of those things were scary at all, and while at the time I thought the actors and writing good enough for the job, this was all low-budget horror flick stuff. The kind of stuff that just doesn’t scare me.


No, the scary parts came from working on the computer. At various points in the game, you in your role as an office worker in his cubicle have to log onto the company system and do some work. The game screen switches from point and click adventure style to a simulation: your computer becomes your character’s computer with e-mail and other office-appropriate functions. Even then it seemed sort of simplified and unwieldy compared to my actual desktop, but it was believable. That believability was key, because it allowed me to suspend that pesky disbelief without even being conscious of it.


The terror came on subtle and simple. Compared to the special effect driven video sequences, I’m sure that it was the cheapest, easiest feature to implement in the game. I didn’t even know for sure what was happening or indeed that anything was happening at all. It was a flickering in the corner of my eye, a movement at the top right of the screen. It made me nervous, but I had my mind on other things (plot things, things I don’t remember at all now). As my disquiet grew, the weirdness couldn’t be ignored. I stopped everything else and just stared at that corner of the screen. I felt self-conscious about it because it might have been nothing at all, just a trick of the afternoon light or a defect in my old monitor. And then it flashed for less than a second, a single word. Maybe it was two. Memory fails me because there would be more of them, but it was something along the lines of “Murder.” It really, actually scared me.


The game had built up to this moment well with my character’s psychological state already seriously in question. Something bad was going on, but I didn’t know what it was. Then, in that moment, that flash of a single word, the game changed my reality. My brain had accepted the game’s computer interface as an analog experience to my own desktop. It was expecting creepy e-mails and weird images in response to mouse clicks. It wasn’t ready for the supposedly stable elements of my user interface to start urging me towards homicide. Ahh, how I treasure that moment.


Now you can have it too, except I’ve ruined it for you. I did put that spoiler warning up top (although I might’ve undersold it). I’m torn about buying A Puzzle of Flesh again. I think that it’s great that it is available, but I’m pretty sure that playing it now would ruin those memories. We’ll see, but if anyone out there does play it now for the first time, I’d love to know if it holds up even a little bit. Anyone else have some outstanding scary moments from video games?


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Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010
Is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?

I recently caught the first few minutes of the cartoon movie version of Dante’s Inferno.  Besides reminding me that “serious” cartoons that are supposedly made for adults are often really badly written, it also reminded me of how poorly the motivations were developed for the character, Dante, when I tried to play the video game version.


Using that old chestnut, the “damsel in distress,” as a primary motivator in video game narratives is hardly something new.  The slight plot of Donkey Kong wholly rests on the idea of “guy needs to save girl.”  This plot line represents a very simple emblem of a traditional sense of heterosexual romance, men pursue women, thus, it is compelling to tell stories about this pursuit or, in the case of games, take on the role of the man pursuing the woman. Embedded in this notion is the idea that a woman is something worth pursuing in and of herself, however, more sophisticated versions of these stories tend to at least attempt to give us some sense of a relationship that exists between these characters or a sense of who the woman is that a man should go to so much trouble for.


Donkey Kong has a seemingly similar advantage that Dante’s Inferno should have in telling its story.  Since Donkey Kong derives its minimal structure from King Kong—ape steals guy’s girl, guy has to pursue girl to get her back—prior knowledge of the story of King Kong may help us to understand that a relationship exists between our hero and damsel.  The need for exposition then in Donkey Kong is obviated by the romantic background of the story having already been told. 


Likewise, a prior knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy should give us insight into the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, idealized as it is by the poet.  However, Dante’s Inferno has also revised the tale, making Dante and Beatrice’s platonic and ideal love something less so, modernizing it for a contemporary audience.  Beatrice “gives it up” only to Dante because he is especially worthy and faithful.  A modern day version of “platonic” love is monogamy . . . or something? Despite being familiar with the previous work, the game still leaves me cold regarding Beatrice as a motivation for Dante. 


However, I can’t quite figure out why I am pursuing her so very hard (indeed, like the cartoon movie, I only made it through the first 10 or 20% of the game before returning the rental—talk about a lack of motivation).  This brief nod to idealization and a few scenes that fail to give me a sense of who this woman is before she is bleeding on the ground and giving up her ghost to Lucifer himself don’t really speak to me of why Dante likes this woman so much.


Curiously, though, lack of motive is at the heart of classic games that utilize the damsel in distress motif.  Is Mario in love with Princess Peach?  Is that why he is pursuing her in Super Mario Bros.?  That has always remained a bit unclear to me in the Mario mythology.  I seem to vaguely recall a reward kiss from Peach in some iteration of the series, but Mario’s motives in the first game seem especially unclear as he is merely launched into the Mushroom kingdom and begins moving to the right (assumedly, the direction that “the castle” where Peach is being held exists).  The closing scene, in which Peach simply thanks Mario, also doesn’t clarify any kind of romantic closure to a potential love story. 


Instead, if we are to assume some sort of romantic motivation or at the very least that the princess is valuable enough to pursue, Peach is defined merely by her status as princess.  In this instance, Peach seems to be reduced to a characterless object rather readily.  She has a crown, so she is conceived of by the player as something like treasure, maybe?  It’s a rather cold emblem of the goal of a romantic, epic quest if that is the case.


That same coldness seems to exist in Dante’s Inferno.  While Beatrice and Dante’s relationship is at least represented briefly in some flashback sequences, as noted the player is simply never really given a sense of who this woman.  She is blonde and voluptuous and maybe this signifies something like “treasure” in a most bleak vision of the fundamental nature of male-female relationships, but is blonde and voluptuous a sufficient motive for harrowing hell?


Ironically, I just wrote a few weeks ago about “The Romance of Karateka, a game very much in the vein of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Dante’s Inferno, but I praised it for its success as a romance cast in this very same formula, saying, “In a sense Karateka‘s romantic sensibilities are simple, traditional, and cliched, but they are also simple, relatable, and supported by the gameplay itself, which boils romance down to one thematic interest: how does effort fit into the equation [of romance]?” (Popmatters.com, 3 February 2010).  However, I also observed about the reason for the elegance and simplicity of the way that that game approaches romantic relationships is due to the fact that “It is a boy’s story.  Frankly, it is a little boy’s story.”  While Mariko is the “object” that motivates the effort in the game, nevertheless, the experience of the game focuses the player on its lesson in romance, which is that effort is required to reach that goal.  It is a simple enough lesson about love when you haven’t yet reached puberty, requiring no real necessity in creating complex characters and psychologies to support a mature sense of the complexities of a relationship.


Frankly, such simple goals and lessons also make the seemingly purposeless pursuit of Peach similarly palatable to the pre-pubescent gamer.  But Mario has always been marketed first towards that demographic.  If the game holds charm for adult gamers, that charm lies in its innocence and simplicity because of the way that it has been shaped for its younger target audience.


If that is the case, Dante’s Inferno rating, Mature, may speak to its problems in developing a plot based on underdeveloped relationships and an underdeveloped damsel in distress.  While children might need a simple and emblematic vision of romance to tell a story, adults generally want a bit more information to begin to believe in character’s motivations. If Beatrice is represented as a flat, emblematic character laid bare (quite literally, which is part of the many reasons for its rating) for the adult player, the mixture of mature subject matter with an idealized image and childish theme becomes problematic for the game’s target demographic.  It is a dilemma for Dante’s Inferno as the imagery that the developers want to portray in hell is certainly not suitable for a child’s eyes, but, unfortunately, the romance that is being presented is maybe only believable when viewing it through those same eyes.  It is a children’s story trapped in an adult frame.  If the content of games is to mature, characterization needs to mature alongside it.


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