It’s no doubt telling that two of my clearest memories from my first attempt at graduate school are getting into a fight with my advisor and spending a whole snow-bound winter week sealed away in my dorm room playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms on my Sega Genesis. As you might expect, neither one was conducive to getting a master’s degree, and I didn’t. But I didn’t go down without a fight and part of that fight involved swearing off any more computer strategy games. I unplugged the Genesis and got out of the dorm room. Instead of the library I went to play tabletop RPGs with some new friends, resulting in my first paid writing gig and a nice career despite that final blow up with my prof. But that’s another story. The important take away here is that I have a propensity for losing many a potentially productive day to turn-based strategy games.
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Mel Brooks doesn’t strike me as an avid video game player, but his famous description of comedy does a great job of describing how many games approach humor: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
In video games, even the most linear scenarios require a relatively high amount of participation from people who in other media would be considered the “audience.” For a game to use comedy in a way that truly utilizes the medium’s strength, it needs to include more than passive dialogue jokes and amusing sight gags. Just as an adventure game gives the player control over the hero’s actions, a comedy thrusts them into a situation where they actively participate in creating humorous situations.
It’s difficult to create the smooth, yet improvisational feel of a stand-up routine or sketch comedy bit within a game. Whether it is players working with other players or humans working with AI routines, creating the spontaneity integral to effective comedy is challenging the confines of most games’ rules. To circumvent this, many games approach humor through digital slapstick or virtual practical jokes. In doing so, they practice the odd habit of inviting the player to participate in pranking themselves.
Spirituality and gaming: surely a toxic combination if ever there was one? The former is—however broadly defined—about the serious task of attempting to engage with forces beyond the material realm, while the latter is often about sitting on a sofa, bashing bad guys and notching up high scores. What links the two pursuits is that arguably they are both concerned on some level with escapism, defined as the search for experiences outside the norm. Whatever their reasons, games developers have from time to time included religious and spiritual references in their games, resulting in the crossing over of these two usually disparate worlds. One particularly fascinating example that I’ve recently been reacquainted with is Bullfrog’s 1998 strategy game Populous: The Beginning.
Every video game is fundamentally about creating a world. Sometimes it’s a very small, linear world that’s a series of paths with nice scenery. Other times it’s a broad, open landscape that leaves you free to roam. What makes these things represent a world is that there is always a rule system or logic guiding everything. In the same way that Harry Potter’s magical world has a series of principles that guides the character’s conduct, any game has rules that govern the player’s conduct. To fill in the details and perceptions of those rules, video games tend to borrow from a wide variety of mediums. Books, with their wide selection of science fiction and fantasy novels, are very adept at creating fictional worlds. What ideas can be borrowed from them?
An article at Wikipedia explains that for most writers you either start at the top or work from the bottom. That is, you plan the entire world out on paper, or you just create as much room as you need for the story. The space can be expanded as your characters move on to new areas and you have to think up new stuff for them to do. You can generally tell which one an author is doing by how much extraneous crap they shovel into the plot. When an author constructs an entire world, they tend to want to show it off as much as possible. An article by Heather Massey listing off unnecessary details in science fiction stories mostly consists of authors insisting on rattling off all of the technical details of the world. How does the ship deal with gravity, flight, the vacuum of space, pew effects, etc.? All of these are details that people don’t really need explained to them. Readers are familiar with the concepts and don’t require explanation to maintain a suspension of disbelief (“7 Unnecessary Science Fiction Details”, The Galaxy Express, 10 May 2009). It’s when figuring out these ways to plausibly have elements of the world discussed (without becoming tedious) that games get stuck, especially when borrowing from sci-fi or fantasy literature.
This week’s podcast contributors, G. Christopher Williams, Nick Dinicola, and Thomas Cross, discuss some recent indie releases. Our review includes Thomas Brush’s Coma, Alexander Ocias’s Loved, and Digipen’s Solace.
This series of games seem built more to engage and immerse than many similar titles of the Triple A variety. We discuss the virtues and vices of using games as a means to evoke emotion and whether they remain “games” in the familiar sense of the word at all.
// 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