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

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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009
Crackdown is a pure example of a gaming space designed with a sense of the "traditional" male gaming demographic in mind.

As a part of the now blossoming sandbox genre, Crackdown was a game that chose to all but abandon narrative. Combining an RPG stat upgrading system with an impressive degree of physical mobility and strength, the game just plopped you down in a giant city and let you run amuck. Three gangs, each living in their own isolated section of the city, must be eliminated. Kill the main leader and the gang will fall, but if you want to curb the strength of his men, you can take out the lieutenants scattered around the area. Kill the arms dealer, and the gang’s guns become subpar. Kill their recruiter and there will be less thugs on the street. Anecdotal cutscenes will introduce these boss figures and explain the effects of their demise, but otherwise, there is no character interaction with them or that interacts as a traditional character might at all—no protagonist who speaks, no real response to your actions besides weakening the gang’s basic infrastructure. It is a pure example of a gaming space intended for the classic male gaming demographic.


This sentiment is somewhat mirrored in a postmortem detailing the problems that the game experienced during development. When recalling the four year development process, the lead designer mostly focuses on the difficulty of creating an engine and graphics that could support the game. Artistically, it is still gorgeous today, using darkly outlined edges with bright colors to create a vibrant and engaging aesthetic. The real joy of the game is just running around smashing stuff. Doing this improves stats (like incremental increases in jump distance), weapons proficiency, better car handling along with all the activities littered throughout the game. Weapons depots must be unlocked, every weapon in the game can be collected and safely stored. Car races and experience orbs all give the player something to conquer. These genre tropes are still prevalent in sandbox games today, but what is remarkable about Crackdown is that it does this without any real plot motivating the player. It’s just the urge to move around the environment that drives the player’s actions.


I cannot claim credit for recognizing that Crackdown represents a prime example of a masculine virtual space, a student blog post from Celia Pearce’s Game Design as Cultural Practice at Georgia Tech pointed out this idea out to me.


The idea of a gender-themed game design goes back to an essay by Henry Jenkins. Writing years ago when developers all but ignored female gamers, he attempted to argue that video games allow for important psychological development in growing teenagers. He is not outlining games that should specifically be played by either gender but rather using that theme to propose a new awareness that game design is about allowing kids to escape to an empowering world. By explaining the basic themes of a teenage male’s empowerment fantasy, the essay proposes alternatives that might be more broadly appealing. He writes, “To facilitate such immersive play, to achieve an appropriate level of “holding power” that enables children to transcend their immediate environments, video game spaces require concreteness and vividness.” A player must have a large space to explore freely, activities to discover, and a means of interaction that lets their imagination engage with the game. Jenkins points out that in his own family, telling his son to go play outside isn’t really an option in their city apartment. The observation led him to doing some digging about what precisely playing outside usually provides for a young boy. He explains, “Our physical surroundings are ‘relatively simple and relatively stable’ compared to the ‘overwhelmingly complex and ever shifting’ relations between people, and thus, they form core resources for identity formation. The unstructured spaces, the playforts and treehouses that children create for themselves in the cracks, gullies, back alleys, and vacant lots of the adult world constitute what Robin C. Moore (1986) calls ‘childhood’s domain’ or William Van Vliet (1983) has labeled as a “fourth environment” outside the adult-structured spaces of home, school, and playground.”


The freer and more open the area, the better the child can escape and modify their physical environment. Jenkins draws heavily on a study by E. Anthony Rotundo on play habits of boys in the 19th century or what is called “boy culture.” Jenkins points out that the fantasies and behavior of kids back then was just as remarkably violent as games are now. Jenkins further comments, “Nineteenth century ‘boy culture’ was sometimes brutally violent and physically aggressive; children hurt each other or got hurt trying to prove their mastery and daring. Twentieth century video game culture displaces this physical violence into a symbolic realm. Rather than beating each other up behind the school, boys combat imaginary characters, finding a potentially safer outlet for their aggressive feelings. We forget how violent previous boy culture was.” To back these claims, Rotundo examines prime examples of popular penny novels and stories from this era. Fighting Indians, raging sea battles, blood, guts, and violence are the things that have always interested young males growing up. These books worked through, “persistent images of blood-and-guts combat and cliff-hanging risks that compelled boys to keep reading, making their blood race with promises of thrills and more thrills. This rapid pace allowed little room for moral and emotional introspection. In turn, such stories provided fantasies which boys could enact upon their own environments.”


This is precisely the space that Crackdown elegantly creates. In any section of the city, the player is never completely safe until the gang has been defeated. Random drive-bys will always occur and each gang has their own strengths that make them dangerous in unique ways. The Volk use grenade launchers while the Shai-Gen keep a corporate army of snipers hammering you from the rooftops. Jenkins explains, “The space of the boy book is the space of adventure, risk-taking and danger, of a wild and untamed nature that must be mastered if one is to survive. The space of the boy book offers ‘no place to seek cover,’ and thus encourages fight-or-flight responses.” Crackdown always dangles the possibility of tackling the head gang leader once you find their hideout. Each time that you take down a lieutenant you are informed of your statistical chances of surviving an attack on the final boss. Once you hit 50%, the narrator will encourage you to take the odds or “flip a coin.” Exploration and risks are also encouraged because of the wide-open nature of the game’s setting. Although all of the bosses are basically the same as the thugs except they have far more health, their locations on the map are often distant and difficult to access. A boss hiding at an island fortress can be approached by well-guarded floating bridges or you can swim through a minefield to approach from the rear. Combat and even death are both very forgiving; you regenerate health and death by respawning at the armory of your choice. This is a game that encourages you to be daring inside its space.


The game is not without its flaws nor was its release not problematic. For Example, the ability to lock on to distant targets makes the rocket launcher the weapon of choice. The Halo 3 beta key could only be claimed by buying the game, fueling a lot of indignation and then mild support once the demo hit. One of the tenants of a “boy space” that Jenkins overlooks is the need for a driving purpose or goal, an achievement for the player to pursue. Crackdown’s lack of narrative means that once you max out the stats, there isn’t much driving the player to actually complete the game. User TheGum at gamefaqs sums up a much younger perspective than my views of Crackdown: “The first few hours are great, as you discover the layout of the city, build core stats, and hunt down the many orbs. But after you have the strength and agility maxed out, the game really crashes; hence, the crack loses its potency.” Where Crackdown succeeds is both providing an exotic world to explore and a slow expansion of the player’s ability to access, control, and destroy that environment.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
When virtual economies collide with real world values, funny things happen.

As numerous facebook games and MMO’s begin to introduce microtransactions, a system where you buy items in-game with real world money, the remarkable strength of economies based on things that are not real deserves a closer look. Since all the goods in an MMO are non-essentials, you are pandering to a person’s need to feel successful at something. An article by Kris Graft at Gamasutra on the psychology of collecting in-game items explains, “Achievements are unique and difficult enough that most players will choose a small handful and distinguish themselves that way. This is the same sort of process that happens in deciding who want to be as we grow.” The article acknowledges that working with friends, enjoying the game, etc. are also factors but the thing that makes someone absolutely need to have that rare piece of armor, to earn that one achievement, is the desire to stand out. This is a resource that you have to manage extremely carefully. Anthony Burch jokes in a Rev Rant on collectibles that the emotional satisfaction of collecting items in a game like Shadow Complex or Super Metroid is like eating a package of Oreos. The first one is delicious, the second still good, third wears down, until after about a dozen you start to feel sick. It’s the same reason a more expensive chocolate or candy bar comes in a smaller quantity, you risk the person disliking the product when they overindulge.


From http://www.blogcdn.com

From http://www.blogcdn.com


Maintaining this resource of psychological satisfaction is extremely difficult because there is no finite quantity in an MMO. An article by Kim-Mai Cutler explains that in MMO games the rules of the system are very simplified. There are only ‘sources’ and ‘sinks’, things like taxes do not exist to free up or restrict resources. You have absolute information about all transactions and absolute control over what is being purchased. All of this control does little to mitigate the fact that when you tinker with even a simplified system, you can cause what Tateru Nino calls an economic earthquake with numerous consequences. For example, in the game Ultima Online they imposed a restriction on the amount of iron players could harvest to forge weapons. People just mined all the ore, the player weapon economy stopped producing, prices rose, and everyone demanded they just create more iron.


Matthew Skala goes into detail about the point Cutler makes on MMO’s suffering from singular costs. A game like World of Warcraft is problematic because there is only one drain on a player’s resources: buying stuff. It’s just collect money (from an infinite supply), purchase goods (from an infinite market), and eventually burn out as they hit the max achievement state. Or as Burch put it above, they end up eating the whole bag of Oreos. One commenter makes a very good point though, the game does have a tax system in the form of repair, skills, and extremely expensive commodities. Advanced skills are purchased, not automatically received, but it’s called ‘training’ instead of a leveling tax. Mounts are extremely costly, but are also highly sought-after in the community. The time required and cost of these goods should not be underestimated; one user points out that they have friends who have been playing the game for three years that still can’t afford the most expensive skills. Protecting the time duration for consuming goods, the spacing between each Oreo, is thus tantamount to maintaining the player’s enjoyment of the MMO economy.


Blizzard’s legal team, who are some of toughest in the business, actively prosecute any botting or cheating programs that circumvent grinding. The company also does not allow anyone to sell in-game items for cash if they can catch them at it. An article at T=machine cites the trial notes from MDY v. Blizzard, “Blizzard’s design intent is for the resources to command a certain high value, so that average players, who might get one or two of the resources in an average amount of play time, may obtain a decent amount of gold from selling them. But because characters controlled by bots flood the market with those resources, the market value of these resources is far less than Blizzard intended, and the average player realizes only a fraction of the intended value from the resources s/he finds.” That value is founded both psychologically and by maintaining scarcity in-game to create perceived value.


So the basic issue for an MMO economy is always going to be that on a long enough timeline all players will have the best gear and maxed out skills. You’re trying to figure out a way to keep them running on the tread mill by finding ways to appeal to that need to stand out. If there are too many Death Knights with the same kick ass set of armor and weapons, it becomes common and players lose interest. The solution in WoW’s case is two-fold: expansion packs and patches. An expansion pack for a game like Diablo 2 or World of Warcraft introduces a new continent to explore, monsters to fight, new skills, and new loot. All of these things are more expensive and more powerful than the previous version of the game. The result is something similar to what Karen Blumenthal at the Wall Street Journal refers to as a tech bubble. A bubble forms when there is a rapid technological or social innovation, as opposed to one that is slowly developed and adjusted to society. The innovation and the bubble are not always intrinsically related, the radio and car became prevalent in the 1920’s over a very short period of time just before the Great Depression. One person starts making a lot of money really fast, others get on board with their own schemes, and the urge to get rich slowly erodes common sense. The article cites two examples of superficial product booms during the internet’s arrival: beanie babies and handbags in the early 2000’s. Their perceived value directly related to a sense of temporary scarcity. The bubble burst because teddy bears and purses aren’t exactly hard to make, it was only a matter of time before the market flooded. In an MMO the same thing is true: people who want the best gear are going to get it eventually. As more do, value depreciates, and new ways to stand out must be developed.


You can see this in the real world value for items on websites that sell World of Warcraft gear. The expansion pack is the tech boom, the loot’s value rockets up and then bottoms out as everyone gets a hold of it. Finding consistent figures on this is really hard because technically these goods shouldn’t even be sold for money, so take this with a grain of salt. At Bank of WoW the value of gold money is generally stable at about $ 6.45 per thousand. The gear, however, plummets in value. At a gear website the top tier armor and gear will run you $ 1086.99 followed by a smaller set at $ 786.99. All other items and gear are $ .01. The latest expansion pack has been out since November 13, 2008, so this value depreciation only took a year to create. Player engagement is maintained by a steady process of patching the game, which constantly changes the benefits of gear and skills so the most powerful one will become weak and different ones will increase in value. Exchange and achievement are always pursuable options as the peak achievement state is modified.


Ultimately, it’s still difficult to find a stable economic system in a game because you can never be sure when it’s easier for the player to just grind for the item in-game. It’s essentially a massive exercise in asking the player what they think an item is worth: hours of their time or actual money? All the games have to do is make sure there is always something to buy and that players can’t do it all the time.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Nov 20, 2009
Modern Warfare 2 isn’t just a game about war, it’s about modern war, and all the uncomfortable ugliness that comes with it.

The Call of Duty franchise has always seemed to want to honor veterans and soldiers. The intensity of the first few games made for a fun experience, but since those moments were based on real events, they also had an air of gravity to them. This trend began to fade with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which had a central character die in a rather inglorious way and didn’t shy away from showing the darker consequences of war on individual soldiers. With Modern Warfare 2 Infinity Ward has abandoned its old formula and embraced everything that its subtitle-turned-title represents.


The story of Modern Warfare 2 is filled with plot holes, and characters act out in extreme ways with little apparent motivation. The criticisms of this story are valid, but in the grand scheme of things, the plot is not as important as the mood the game sets. Ben Kuchera, who reviewed the game for Ars Technica, put it best when he described the game as “a tone poem about warfare” (A description made even more interesting when you take into consideration L.B. Jeffries’ comparison of games and poetry earlier this week). The game takes its moniker “modern warfare” seriously, and in doing so, goes to some very dark, morally ambiguous, and morally wrong places. It’s filled with moments of fist-pumping action, but all are contrasted with moments of death and destruction that come to define the tone of the game. By the end, we’re left with the realization that modern warfare is ugly in almost every way.


The rest of this post contains major spoilers for Modern Warfare 2.


Others have written about the infamous “No Russian” level, in which you take part in a terrorist attack on a Russian airport. Regardless of this level’s appropriateness or importance to plot, I find it to be just one of many examples of how this game takes its title seriously. Previous Call of Duty games were based on World War 2, where the battle lines were clearly drawn: the Allies were good, the Axis bad. But in the years since then, terrorism has played an increasing role in global politics, so much so that now a terrorist attack on any country is considered more realistic than an all out war. With this in mind, the “No Russian” level is an apt portrayal of the current state of the world, in which civilians are just as likely targets as soldiers. The battle lines are no longer obvious.


World War 2 was also the last “moral war” that the United Sates was involved in. All the wars since then have been morally ambiguous in one way or another, and Modern Warfare 2 captures this ambiguity by giving almost every character a dark side. There are no true heroes in Modern Warfare 2. The minute-to-minute gameplay is so intense it forces us to focus on the moment, but in retrospect we have to questions to morality of our actions. Most characters have a noble goal, but they go about it in the most violent way possible.


Joseph Allen is recruited to go undercover in a Russian terrorist cell in order to get close to one Vladimir Makarov. He takes part in the attack on an airport, kills dozens of civilians, but his cover is blown and he ends up being killed by Makarov. His body is then used as an excuse for Russia to invade the United States. His intentions to expose an even bigger villain than Makarov were noble, but his violent methods resulted in more harm than good.


There are two ways one can interpret the actions of General Shepherd. Some see him as a grand conspirator who purposefully blew Allen’s cover so that the terrorist attack would be blamed on the U.S. and a war would start, which would spur military enlistment and give him more power. Others see him as an opportunist, as someone who didn’t plan for war, but decides to take advantage of it by hiding the truth about the terrorist attack in order to spur military enlistment and give him more power. Either way, he is not the hero is rank implies.


The closest thing Modern Warfare 2 has to good guys are Soap and Price. But Price unapologetically launches a nuke at Washington DC. It may explode above the atmosphere, sparing the destruction of the city, but the International Space Station is destroyed and the resulting EMP blast causes just as much disruption to the Americans as it does the Russians. Both men then spend the last couple levels hunting down Shepherd, going so far as to make a deal with Makarov to find the General. At this point they’re no different than Joseph Allen: Making a deal with the devil in hopes of achieving some greater good. Their goal of exposing the truth about the terrorist attack is noble, but their willingness to team with terrorists to do so is frightening. After all, when Price tells Makarov “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Makarov then warns him “that cuts both ways,” implying our two protagonists might have to help him one day. Also, while they may kill Shepherd in the end, he’s the leader of the American military at that point, so they’ve only added to the political chaos in the world. Everything they do resolves one conflict while starting another.


By the end of the game nothing is resolved. Soap and Prince are considered terrorists, Makarov is still at large, and the United States is still at war with Russia. Ending the game here is a very obvious set up for the sequel, but it’s also inadvertently symbolic of most political conflicts: Nothing is ever really resolved, violence that fades away eventually flares up again years later.


Modern Warfare 2 is a game with a very dark take on war. It embraces the major differences between modern war and the wars of old in order to emphasize them. The actual story, the excuse for going to war, may be flimsy and unrealistic, but the tone the game sets is hard to shake off, and will stay with you long after finishing it. This isn’t just a game about war, it’s about modern war, and all the uncomfortable ugliness that comes with it.


Tagged as: modern warfare 2
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.

This discussion of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains spoilers for this game as well as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock.


The most compelling thing about the use of the first person perspective in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was how it victimized the player.  From the opening scene in which the player was forced to take on the role of the victim of an execution to the sequence in which the player tried but failed to escape a nuclear blast, the game victimized the player by immersion. Taking full advantage of the illusion of the personal that the first person evokes in video games (you do after all seem to see right out of the eyes of the character that you are inhabiting), the immersive quality of being able to control your perspective in the first sequence but being left unable to escape the consequence of a fatal shot leaves the player sharing and experiencing the helplessness of the doomed character.  Likewise, the ability to crawl from the wreckage of a helicopter downed by the eddies of a nuclear explosion but being unable to get much further before dying in the ruined landscape is a suggestion that despite seemingly having “control” over a character (something the gamer is accustomed to having) that control of a final destiny is tenuous at best.  The character’s helplessness is the player’s helplessness, reflecting the game in the experience of it.  For gamers used to the sense of invulnerability and immortality that gaming experiences provide through multiple lives and continue options, this experience produces an unaccustomed impotence.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 significantly ups the ante of exploring ways of reflecting the experience of playing a character with the players own experience of gaming, but it additionally begins to explore how that relationship coincides with questions of rules and authority.


At the beginning of the third chapter of the game, an Army Ranger,  Pfc. Joseph Allen, is briefed on his mission to go undercover with a Russian named Makarov who has no territorial or political affiliations.  Makarov is genocidal and traffics in human beings.  As the briefing reveals, “Makarov’s fighting his own war, and he has no rules and no boundaries.”  Rules and boundaries become the chief interest of this sequence and subtley also everything that the player has done thus far and usually does in an FPS or any video game for that matter.  Playing at soldier is what a player does in any game in the Call of Duty series and always within the same sorts of boundaries that a soldier has.  You are given mission objectives and meant to fulfill them.  Gamers are most often followers of rules.


Indeed, in the previous mission while playing as Sgt. “Roach” Sanderson, the player is given an onscreen prompt to “Follow MacTavish” as Sgt. “Soap” MacTavish leads a mission to infilitrate an enemy compound.  The instruction is almost needless as any player of games is accustomed to following other characters’ leads in missions.  The player is unlikely to give any second thoughts to following the instructions of MacTavish.  Falling into the role of a soldier is about the equivalent to falling into the role of the player of a game.  Follow the rules and don’t step outside of the boundaries.  Conforming to rules leads to solution, the solving of the game.


The Makarov mission, however, begins to challenge rules and boundaries with its content and much of that challenge lies in the mission briefings description of the events surrounding the mission.  It explains that in the current global political situation “Uniforms are relics.  The war rages everywhere, and there will be casualties.”  This reference to uniforms certainly informs about Makarov’s nature as an apolitical animal that is not affiliated with, not marked by the uniform of a citizen loyal to a particular national interest, but it also alludes to the situation that the player is about to experience, one that violates the “rules” and “boundaries” of a typical military FPS.


The mission begins with the player riding an elevator alongside four heavily armed men that are dressed as civilians (one of which is Makarov).  That familiar and almost invisible prompt “Follow Makarov” is one of only two instructions that the player receives in terms of his objectives for this mission.  The second is one of his colleagues turning and simply stating “No Russian.”  As the elevator opens and the player moves forward (“following Makarov”), the reason for the second instruction becomes clear.  A group of civilians easily noted by their lack of uniforms (indeed “uniforms are relics” and the “rules” and “boundaries” of the game of war have seemingly been altered in modern warfare) waits in line at airport security. 


As a player that was “following Makarov” and drawing conclusions about the lines that I had just heard about uniforms now being irrelevant in warfare and that I was to follow Makarov’s lead to complete my objective, I felt one thing at this moment, despair.  My character had lifted his machine gun, and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.  Makarov and his men opened fire.  I did not.


What I did wonder as I watched Makarov and his men gun down three or four dozen people in front of me is: how many players would open fire on the crowd?  After all, like every other mission in the game and most missions in video games, instructions were clearly given on what to do: follow.


My choice not to do so seemed cued by the lack of uniforms in front of me.  Enemies in video games generally are marked visually in some way to represent them as targets.  Such markings include ugliness, monstrosity, and, of course, the uniform of a foreign government.  My choice to not open fire may have been as “rule driven” as the choice to open fire.  Players opening fire may do so because they are trained to follow onscreen prompts.  Players who do not may not do so because they are trained to recognize the “otherness” of enemies through simple and clear signs like uniforms. 


In any case, I stood and watched.  As Makarov and his men advanced, I quickly fell into the role of “following” as I was supposed to.  I followed Makarov up an escalator as he and his men killed civilians in droves.  At one point, I even stepped to the edge of a balcony to watch the man that was now beside me kill everyone below.  I fell into my role as undercover agent.  Unwilling to participate, I also was participating in not blowing my cover.  I realized that I had become complicit in the actions of Makarov and his thugs by merely observing. 


My second feeling of despair hit as we were about to descend to the floor below, and it occurred to me that I was armed and standing behind Makarov.  While uniforms were obviously not relics to me, why hadn’t I tried to intervene on the behalf of the victims of those who violated such rules?  I am ashamed to say that I hesitated for a moment wondering if shooting Makarov would cause me to fail my mission (again, rules intervened in my considertaion of how to appropriately participate in this sequence).  However, I determined to see what the outcome of shooting Makarov would be.


Indeed, killing Makarov branded me a traitor and ended the mission.  Thus, as the game loaded me once again to the checkpoint, I found myself fatally bound to follow Makarov whether as an active participant or not.  I continued as observer and found myself scanning the faces of crumpled bodies that we waded through as we approached the doors out to the tarmac where rules and uniforms saved me once again.


Outside we were greeted by policemen that began shooting at us.  While I waited a bit and watched Makarov and his men engage the cops, I could clearly see that they were making no headway and in any case, my life was being threatened, and I knew the rules: when you are being shot at you can shoot back.  Suddenly, my role as soldier and as a gamer had been reinstated by the uniforms of my enemies.


The ending sequence of the level does provide a kind of means of absolving the player of the guilt of either having had directly participated in this sequence or in indirectly by avoiding but still watching an atrocity.  Pfc Allen is gunned down by Makarov, removing the stain of his actions by negating the character as a future protagonist.


Currently, it is all the rage to prize games that offer players complex choices, moral and otherwise, in approaching solutions to levels or resolution of narrative.  Indeed, one of the most compelling and largely unique things about games as a medium is that the audience of the medium is given the ability to participate in and potentially alter the narrative itself.  Much maligned are games that enforce narrative elements like the often criticized sequence in Bioshock in which the player suddenly loses control of himself and is made to execute Andrew Ryan.  Despite the seeming choice that the player seems to have to not fire, though, like Bioshock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 seems interested in interrogating the relationship between authority and free will.


Certainly, I may have “chosen” the more noble route of not participating in the murder of innocents.  Nevertheless, I still followed Makarov as instructed.  Even when I realized that I might have some alternative option to intervene in an activity that was distasteful to me, I still felt hamstrung by rules and hesitated in executing Makarov and his men because of my expectations of the rules and conventions of the game despite my own moral quandry.


Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.  In fact, as I was playing through this sequence the prompt “Follow Makarov” evoked my recollection of how I had previously been quite comfortable with the prompt “Follow MacTavish” and made me wonder why I had not felt anything about gunning down humans that were one symbolic marker away from civilians.  If uniforms are only relics now, why were uniforms something that I could acceptably assault before now with no concern for the human underneath?


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is ferocious and terrible.  It once again victimizes the player, ironically, by offering the illusion of choice to the player but then reminding him of his own dedication to rules that are followed consciously and unconsciously.  The reflection of the life of the soldier on the experience of the gamer once again becomes a way of causing the player to reflect on themselves.  In this case, though, it may be a reflection of a terrible ferocity that we share with the game.


Even if we believe that rules don’t guide our decisions and that we are free to make choices, remember that even a man with no rules and no political boundaries may find himself falling prey to deeply embedded rules: “No Russian.”


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 17, 2009
Linearity is a valid design decision because in games, more than any other medium, there is more than one kind of choice.

A roundtable discussion over at EDGE online pits three different design philosophies against one another. Emergent, multiplayer, and linear narrative systems are all advocated by three different parties.  The conversation is worth reading, although in the comments it becomes obvious that readers felt it was a little bit biased against linear narratives. I’m a very big fan of Ragnar Tornquist’s work, but I’m not sure that adventure games can be considered the prime example of a linear story. As content delivery systems they are the most efficient at keeping long speeches and complex plot engaging, but interaction is not their primary tool for this exchange. They instead rely on a lot of cinematic techniques. Having varying artistic sensibilities for what a medium should do is very healthy, it allows for more diversity and variation in both subject and presentation, so with that in mind this is an argument for why linear stories in games continue to be valid. I’ve made the opposite argument before as well.


Much like the emergent and multiplayer experiences that are just now coming into their own, linear experiences in games are better crafted and designed than ever before in video games. Like an emergent or multiplayer game, it can be seen as a series of layers. Visuals stack onto sound which both represent plot which is all driven by an underlying game design. However, unlike an emergent or multiplayer design which can be seen as a large spider web of interesting choices, a linear narrative is a straight line.


The thing is that calling these games linear is a bit misleading. A good way of looking at it comes from the way people interpret a loose, abstract linear narrative like a poem.  William H. Roetzheim writes in his introduction to The Giant Book of Poetry that poems can be broken down into four levels, all of which a great poem offers to a reader. Level one is when a poem works for the casual, uninterested reader who can understand what the poem is saying on the surface. Level two gives the more focused reader something to chew on: carefully organized phrases, rhythm, and a real sense of mood and style. Level three offers a separate, “hidden” message to the reader through metaphor or symbolism. Roetzheim writes, “The message should be recognizable to the skilled reader, and should be obvious to the non-skilled reader when it is pointed out.” Level Four, which he argues is the most difficult to produce, is when a poem’s symbols and language can create a unique, individual meaning for each reader. A Level four poem, “has both literal and representative meanings and the representative meaning is flexible with the reader able to fill in the specific meaning that applies most closely to their personal life.” The foundation of this idea is that a good poem should be both literal and abstract. It can hold your hand and walk you through an interesting experience but should you choose to cut loose and apply your own interpretation it still works. A strong linear game narrative works under very similar conditions. Chris DeLeon writes in a blog response to Jesper Juul that what makes a video game unique is the combination of forces at work. It’s the controller, the screen, the sounds, the music, the design, all working in tandum. A linear narrative consists of all these layers working in tandum, which a player can engage with in any manner they choose.


Take the difficulty levels for a game like Halo 3. On easy it’s not difficult to plow through and relatively boring. On Legendary, which many players vow is the only way to play the game properly, you have to duck for cover and engage with the game in a very complex, skilled manner. There is also a Sci-Fi narrative going on for people interested in that, solid co-op play for when you have company over, and superb multiplayer. The linear narrative is a similar exercise in creating a multi-level poem. It is not just a narrative, that’s just one of many levels that it exists on. What a successful linear narrative does is create a straight path the player must walk but lets them choose things like difficulty or even observing the story. Consider a remarkable game like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can completely play and beat that game without listening to the story once. You can also pay attention to every detail. The ability to phase the information in and out and still be able to enjoy it in your own personal way is where the craftsmanship comes through. Even an adventure game presents this in a minimal fashion: you can decide whether to absorb details and take in the scenery or focus purely on the puzzles to progress.


From Far Cry 2

From Far Cry 2


In contrast, the multiplayer and emergent design approaches are attempts to emphasize personalized metaphors and experiences that will be unique to each player. They are an exercise in creating an artistic medium that relies on the Fourth Level of Poetry. They apply a system of enormous choice with random events and circumstances that enable the player to encounter or generate something that is unique to them alone. The problem with this design philosophy is that empowering player choice results in a kind of self-imposed private redundancy. Every single time I play Civilization IV, I do the exact same thing because that’s the most efficient way for me to win. Far Cry 2 stalls at about 70% progress through the game because there are no more upgrades and thus no new weapons to change your play style. I beat every single mission for the second half of the game by using the same tactic. I climbed on top of the highest point possible, broke out the sniper rifle, and then burn out the survivors before mopping up with heavy weapons. Far Cry 2 is mostly a struggle with all the random jamming and AI encounters that make this approach difficult, but this is making up for what linear design does automatically. Both games are breaking me out of my play style, but the linear one is just being forceful instead of using a random system. There are numerous missions in linear FPS titles where you wish they’d just give you a sniper rifle and let you clean up the area. You’ll even be able to see a lovely mountain where you could do it all from if the dropship pilot wasn’t an idiot. But that’s also the point: going their way is going to be much more tense and exciting. It may not be the best route, but it’s also the most exciting one. Consider Ben Abraham’s Perma Death In Far Cry 2, the series is mostly an exercise in reinforcing linear elements into the game. When he died, that was it, no reloading. He had to modify his engagement with the game to break the personal stagnation that comes with emergent structures.


In an excellent post on the issues dealing with interactive fiction, Emily Short makes note of the fact that with any single player game, an AI is never going to be an audience member to our conduct. They are never going to appreciate our heroism beyond an in-game reward. The in-game conduct is never really going to amount to an epic experience through any literal connections, what makes conduct epic is both the audience and memory. Short eventually argues that these matter more in her medium of choice. She writes, “the story (as opposed to the text) is constructed in the mind of the reader by the work.”


That’s ultimately the leap of faith one takes with a linear game, just as one does with any form of media. An emergent narrative might give us multiple options just like a multiplayer game gives us multiple people to interact with, but in the end each player is still going to have their preferred experience. That’s what justifies the confines of linear design and story: people do it to themselves anyways. A linear narrative and design simply recognizes this fact and instead tries to let the decisions about interaction be much more basic. A designer is saying that this is the best way to experience the level when they make you go through a passage or unlock a certain door before progressing. That’s going to be true if you’re playing it on Hard or Easy, with friends watching, or completely by yourself. It’s going to be true if you’re ignoring the plot or you’re hanging on every word. Linearity is a valid design decision because in games, more than any other medium, there is more than one kind of choice.


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