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Tuesday, Oct 20, 2009
A breakdown of the passive storytelling techniques in Spider. Spoilers abound.

The techniques for telling stories in games has often been dictated by the graphics. Long paragraphs of text were relied on for text parsers and by their 8-bit brethren. As the graphics improved, less detail had to be explained and could simply be observed: at first a chest or save point would be a symbol like a spinning octagon, then as a clunky abstraction, then something that looked very much like a chest. Today, graphic improvements are not quite at photo-realistic, but they are easily recognized by someone unfamiliar with video games. When one considers how far the medium has come along, it’s interesting how the old techniques for delivering narrative are still retained. A game like Bioshock is content to let its setpieces be discovered and explored by the player, but there is also usually an audiobook to spell it out for us. This is the room of the mad plastic surgeon one tape explains, here is where he did something awful to a patient. In Fallout 3 there is always a dimly lit computer monitor, waiting to be hacked, that will provide a few journals explaining the fate of each abandoned Vault or factory. The essence of the text parser describing what the graphics are supposed to be remains, still explaining what we are looking at like a guided museum tour. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is a bold step forward in video game story-telling by simply letting the player observe the world for themselves.


You play a spider that has stumbled upon a curiously bug filled house. Bugs are caught by spinning webs, you make those with silk, which is replenished by eating bugs, and you have to kill a set amount of bugs to progress through the level. Occasionally a portion of a level can be interacted with: a light bulb can flicker on if you bash into it and switches can be flipped at key moments. That’s it. No one talks and there is hardly any legible text (besides names), only what you can observe as a spider. In describing how barebones the narrative of the game Michael Abbott writes, “No amnesiacs. No aliens. No supernatural events or save-the-world imperatives. Just a simple, but startlingly poignant family tragedy revealed via the game’s environments, photos, heirlooms, and small bits of evidence left behind.” This passive relationship with the plot is also made possible because nothing in the game can kill you. Silk is only consumed when spinning webs, you are otherwise free to wander about and look at things calmly. One of the developers, Randy Smith, has a column at EDGE magazine and he does a loose post-mortem on the game. He explains, “As a spider, your lack of interest and ability to affect the story is natural, and you fill the role your character would in real life: you leave the house covered in cobwebs. The story often flirts with this separation between the concerns of your character versus those you yourself would have if you were present, and we stuck to our guns when portraying that irony.”


What’s interesting about the details of the plot is that because there is no audiobook, no text parser moment, their ambiguity is always intact. Each level contains hints about the former occupants of the house and their exchanges, but you are never quite told how they connect. We see a bottle of liquor and an empty glass next to a woman’s photo, but who was drinking it? We see a wedding ring thrown down a sink, a locket dropped into a well, but who was the original owner? The Bryce Family consists of two brothers, the talented N. Bryce and his weaker brother R. Bryce. A photo on the wall shows R. Bryce marrying a young girl (known as L.S. from envelopes and pictures) yet a locket down a well shows her picture with N. Bryce’s. Scattered throughout the house is evidence that their father, C.K. Bryce, may have hidden a treasure in the mansion. X’s painted onto walls and curious holes in the floor and ceiling seem to indicate R. Bryce was hunting for the treasure. Bills tucked away in a corner make it seem even desperate. A shovel in the garden comes across as ominous given the Autumn season, which when connected with a pair of unused train tickets indicates possible foul play. A dead body and a scattering of pills concludes your exploration, the last level and credits are just you catching a lone fly while the sun sets on the mansion.


A discussion on the toucharcade forums will help one appreciate the power of these ambiguities on the player’s experience. After one user posts their theory about the mystery and how L.S. and N.B. eloped, leaving R.B. to misery and suicide, another counters that he thinks R.B. murdered and buried L.S. (ergo the shovel) and then killed himself out of grief. One could easily argue that no suicide is present here at all: the pills next to the body are tucked away in a cabinet, which seems odd for a suicide. What if N.B. and L.S. arranged to kill R.B., then bury him, but ran away at the last minute because they couldn’t find the treasure? There is a letter on a dresser that one user assumes is a “Dear John” goodbye letter, but the still unpacked suitcase in L.S.’s room seems to contradict that the parting was peaceful. Technically, you’re never even quite sure who the body is. R.B. may have poisoned N.B. and left him there. The only thing’s consistent in the various user’s interpretation of the story are the two brothers, one woman, and a treasure that drove them all apart.


Another user at toucharcade, praised the game while totally ignoring the story. He writes, “the differing base point values of the insects, the score multiplier, which increases up to 4X and stays there as long as one stays on one web or leaps to another, the usage of hornets to replenish silk, and the shepherding of mosquitos and butterflies towards the most interconnected parts of the web network” all make each level a unique puzzle for maximizing points. You can observe this word purely as a spider and engage with it without any concern for the plot. And yet beneath the surface of the spider’s goals there is a story whose mysteries are never quite fully explained with audiobooks or text. The ambiguity makes sense because keeping the narrative strictly from a spider’s perspective makes the lack of answers seem plausible, even natural. The things we notice and wonder about are not things our avatar would ever have any reason to care about. Randy Smith eventually dismissed the accomplishments of the game’s narrative in his EDGE column, calling it an ‘elegant dodge’ and writing, “Spider is a game that strives to have an elegant awareness of the interactive media but doesn’t try hard to open up its frontiers”. Which is fair enough, all of the things done in this game have been done before with more advanced set pieces and art. Perhaps then what makes the story so unique is what it doesn’t do.


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Friday, Oct 16, 2009
Will 3D be the next big visual leap in gaming?

A couple weeks ago I wrote that graphics simply can’t get much better, and while I firmly believe that, I also believe that gamers are constantly awaiting some new leap in visuals. It’s something we’ve been conditioned over decades of consoles to expect, and we still expect it now. But if graphics can’t get much better, is a new visual leap is even possible?


In September Resident Evil 5 was released for PC with an interesting new addition: It could be played in 3D, the kind of 3D that has things popping out of the screen, the kind that requires special glasses, a special monitor, and a special video card. LG, Samsung, and Sony have released or plan to release 3D HDTV’s, and Sony has plans to release a patch for the PS3 in 2010 that will allow the system to display 3D games.


There are already a surprising number of games available in 3d on the PC. NVIDA’s GeForce glasses are compatible with DirectX 7, 8, 9, and 10 games, automatically converting the normal 3D to work with the glasses. So this technology is not particularly new, but as usual consoles lag behind, and in this gaming age unless 3D catches on there it won’t catch on at all. So far, the only developer to try and break this new ground has been Sucker Punch, with their game Sly 3 Honor Among Thieves.


Sly 3 uses the now antiquated red/blue 3D glasses to make certain scenes pop out at the viewer. Given the nature of this old technology, it should come no surprise that the change is almost imperceptible at first. The 3D only becomes apparent, and even then only barely, after one starts looking closely at Sly and his position relative to the rest of the level. The effect of the glasses is less “pop” and more like a series of moving 2D images placed on top of each other; you begin to see the level in layers. In the first level the 3D was only obvious when I came to a thin ledge with moving lasers I had to sneak past. The source of the lasers was off-screen, above the camera, which seemed to be just over my head in the real world thanks to “pop” of the 3D. Overall, the 3D didn’t change the experience in any fundamental way, but it did add a new and interesting visual flair to an otherwise typical platformer.


Of course the biggest hurdle facing any implementation of 3D is the skepticism. Is it necessary?


It wasn’t necessary for Sly 3 because it didn’t add anything to the experience. Even if I exaggerate the effects of 3D in my head, I can’t imagine it’d make jumping around any more or less fun than it already was. But I think it could add to the experience of a game like Dead Space: Extraction. In that game enemies must run towards the screen in order to hurt the player. The entire game relies on enemies moving through that third dimension of depth that 3D showcases so well, making such a game the perfect vehicle for the technology. After all, 3D and horror go hand-in-hand since those “boo” moments of something jumping at the screen are only made more shocking if the monster seems to be actually jumping towards the player.


I believe it would add to any game that could exploit this added depth of field: First-person shooters for example, in which there’s always a gun hovering in front of us, and we’re constantly looking down its sights; racing games, where inferring the distance between cars is important, and the details of the cockpit view would stand out just a little bit more; but for a fighting game or any 2.5D game it would only serve as more background eye-candy.


Without going too far down the dangerous road of speculation, I imagine 3D can be very compatible with motion controllers, since it’s easier to move a character in 3D space if you can move the controller in 3D space as well. Combine it with the promised full-body tracking of Microsoft’s Natal, and you could have a truly unique experience unlike anything that has come before. But that’s getting a tad too far ahead of things, and ignores my previous question. Is it necessary?


While I think certain genres would benefit from the added depth the simple answer is no, games will play the same either way. At least motion control changes the way we interact with game, but going 3D only makes them more pretty (or less pretty if you don’t like the new look). Gamers do expect to be wowed visually, and the longer this console generation goes on the less it will wow. So if the next visual leap is not from 3D to 3D, than what will it be? Will there even be a leap? I certainly don’t know, but what I do know is that Sly 3 is fun whether in 3D or not.


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Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009
We may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the sexual experiences of someone else.
Only one thing could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
—Ralphie, A Christmas Story (1983), MGM/UA Entertainment

Much like the “major award” won by Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, contemporary video games with “the snap of a few sparks, and a quick whiff of ozone” tend to offer rather ideal, if incomplete images of lurid matter to their audience.  Indeed, sexuality tends to get treated in one of two distinct ways these days. 


The first treatment appeals to Ralphie’s voyeuristic curiosity at the sight of the simulation of an adult female leg in its electrified form, the infamous leg lamp itself.  Getting to view some T&A in a Leisure Suit Larry game as a result of solving some puzzles or beating some mini-game or getting to ogle Dead or Alive babes clad in the scanty suits that took a lot of effort and deductive skill to convince those women to put on are both ways of treating electric (or stimulatory) versions of sex as if such images are indeed “a major award”.  After all, they serve as a visual reward for the player’s efforts in the game.


The second common treatment of sex is to reduce it to manual operations, seemingly a more suitable and participatory effort than other media can usually provide in their expressions of the pornographic. Film, television, and books can merely offer the same fleeting voyeurism of the aforementioned games, but video games offer the opportunity to participate in the representation of sex by potentially simulating its process and not merely by representing images similar to it as a Playboy magazine might. 


While Ralphie’s groping of the leg lamp in A Christmas Story has a certain passionate pubescent charm to it, efforts of the manual variety in recent video games maintain the cold, plastic feel of a mannequin leg and teach probably less about effective groping than Ralphie’s initial efforts at such business.  The sex mini-game in God of War reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing (while obscuring the activity as the camera modestly turns its gaze away from the ménage à trois that Kratos is participating in).  Similarly modest is the Saint’s Row “ho-ing” mini-game that allows only the view of a bathroom door behind which some lurid behavior is apparently occurring between the player’s avatar and a john.  The only participation in this activity is represented by some odd manipulations of the right and left sticks of the controller that vaguely resembles the mechanics of a rhythm game.


Such efforts reduce sexual representation to some kind of weirdly mechanical process. Participating in simulated sexual acts in these games seem to maybe offer less insight into what sex is about than traditional passive, voyeuristic pornography does.


That is why I was fascinated by a recent interview with David Cage of Quantic Dream, the developer of the forthcoming Heavy Rain.  In the interview published in the October 2009 issue of Game Informer, the interviewer comments on a sequence in the E3 demo of the game, in which one of the game’s protagonists, Madison, is forced to strip at gun point by a mob boss.  The interviewer reports that playing this sequence “made me feel uncomfortable”.  Cage responds by saying:


Fantastic.  You know what?  That is exactly what we wanted.  Exactly.  It was really funny to read the reactions to this scene because people were kind of confused.  They really feel uncomfortable because it’s a really strange situation . . . You control a girl and you’re forced to strip in front of a guy, and the guy is really disgusting . . . Yes, it’s a strong moment for the character.  But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison.


If I am interpreting Cage’s thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the “‘ol in-out, in-out”.  Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience. 


In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males.  If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players.  Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to “believe you were Madison” because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.


Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream’s efforts are not entirely new.  Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender.  I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character.  Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships). 


However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play “in character” in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world).  Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviors into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring.  Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else.  Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure. 


Such illumination might shed some interesting light on sexual issues by provoking emotional responses from players invested in “being” their characters rather than practicing the merely mechanical aspects of sex as if it were a mere game or puzzle to be solved.  I am hoping that more developers are willing to produce a more interesting and insightful vision of real sex through the simulation of the electric, rather than offering us the same leering peeks at it through the window that we have had before.


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Tuesday, Oct 13, 2009
A breakdown of two books that deal with the question of what effect video games may have on young players.

It is unfair for me to write about the issue of games and violence without acknowledging that I am not inclined to believe there is a causal relationship. I have played games my entire life even Wolfenstein when I was barely old enough to understand basic DOS. I learned to read and write by playing adventure games. I also do not have children, so these thoughts are all coming from a person with no experience raising a child. So go to your kitchen and fetch a salt shaker. Now lick your wrist. Pour salt on that spot then lick that.


This post was originally meant to be a comparison between two books, one claiming games make you violent and the other claiming they do not. Unfortunately, neither selected book really made a good case for either argument. The leading book that claims there is a causal relationship is Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents. Written by Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, it summarizes three studies of varying types that test the correlation between aggressive behavior and playing video games. The book pretty much shoots itself in the foot right off the bat by establishing a problematic definition of aggressive behavior. It must be “(a) a behavior that is intended to harm another individual, (b) the behavior is expected by the perpetrator to have some chance of actually harming that individual, and (c) the perpetrator believes that the target individual is motivated to avoid the harm.” (13) The problem is that the book is a study of children and adolescents. How many small children wrestling with one another have a large enough comprehension of consequences and intent to be able to consciously register any of these things?  The book is rife with moments where what’s being claimed contradicts common sense and the definition of aggression. For example, a lengthy exposition of why studies on aggression during the 1990s are flawed due to socioeconomic upbringing is generally considered bad because kids from privileged backgrounds are already less likely to be violent. Your common sense should kick in here: if the connection between games and violence is literally that playing them makes you more aggressive, why does wealth undermine it so drastically? Some difference is to be expected, but it doesn’t help the argument that playing the games by themselves is inherently bad for a child.


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Friday, Oct 9, 2009
Summary: Early this week, our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. Leading off with some observations about considering whether or not the idea of “ganking” can be applied to single player experiences, L.B. Jeffries began a discussion that has considered what rules mean to players. G. Christopher Williams continued this discussion that has focused on the differences between playing and gaming and what limits we may want to place on ourselves as players of games. Nick Dinicola concludes our series today with some final thoughts on whether or not we can earn the right to gank the system.

Over the past week on Moving Pixels,  L.B. Jeffries and G. Christopher William have written about system gank in games, a term that describes “a situation in which a player is still operating legitimately in the confines of the game but has broken the system.” They wrote mostly about the negative consequences of “breaking the game,” but I think ganking the game can be a good thing, at least in single player games.


On a purely semantic level, I disagree that cases of system ganking in single player games is really ganking as L.B. Jeffries defined it in his post. The hyper-production in an RTS, the abundance of health in an RPG, and the speedy financial growth in The Sims all strike me as very purposeful design choices, meant to encourage the player to play a certain way. Am I still ganking the game if the game itself allows, even encourages, me to do so?


When Final Fantasy X first came out a friend of mine played the utter hell out of it. He found the secret weapon for each character, all the secret Aeons (summoned creatures), and even a few secret items that disabled the 9999 damage limit for his characters. When he finally fought the final boss of the game, he defeated it in only two hits (now I admit that this memory may have gotten exaggerated over time, but I clearly remember us both being shocked and laughing for a good while at how short the fight was). Clearly he was overpowered, so much so that even the final boss was no challenge, but did he gank the system? The game allowed him to equip those items, to find those weapons, and it was his own strategic equipment layout that enabled him to become that powerful. He earned the ability to gank the system.


This is, of course, an extreme example, but I believe that ganking is often used as a reward for following the rules. Sometime it takes a long time to earn that reward, as in Final Fantasy X, and sometimes it doesn’t, as in The Sims. Whether that’s seen as a positive or negative depends on the individual and the game that they’re playing. As Christopher mentioned at the end of his post, some gamers prefer “play,” referring to freedom and the violation of rules, and some prefer “gaming,” referring to the challenge and competition that is represented by and generated by a system of rules. If a player enjoys a game for its challenge, then obviously when that challenge is removed, so is the fun. Earning the ability to gank the game ruins the game. But if a player enjoys a game for its freedom, then when that freedom is fully embraced (thanks to our ability to gank the system), the fun remains. 


Some games also encourage one play style over the other. I see nothing wrong with the get-rich-quick nature of The Sims, but then again, the last time that I played it I used a money cheat to build myself a mansion. I felt that the game was more fun when I embraced the freedom of experimentation that it offered. On the other hand, I wouldn’t approve of any cheat that makes it easier to earn gold medals in Trials HD. I feel that game is more fun when I embrace the challenge of the system of rules. Ganking one game makes it fun for me, ganking the other ruins it for me. It all depends on the specific experience that we want to have as players and that the game offers.


However, all that said, I agree with Christopher that better rules would fix most (perceived) ganking problems in single player games. To return to the Fallout 3 example, while having lots of health promotes exploration, it’s also in direct contrast to the game’s heavy themes of survivalism. Throughout the game, we see people struggling to survive and even the main story revolves around making life easier for humanity in the Capital Wasteland. Yet for the middle to high level player, walking through the wastes is like a walk in a park. Sure, the ants may be bigger, but they’re no more dangerous. A system that limits the number of stimpacks that we can carry would fix this discrepancy between the story and the experience. It could discourage exploration by making it harder, but I actually believe that such a fix would have the opposite effect. Exploration isn’t just about the discovery of something new; it’s about facing the dangers of the unknown, pushing ourselves beyond what we feel is safe, entering that dark cave even knowing that we’re ill equipped to handle what may be inside. Danger is exciting, and exploration is Fallout 3 is anything but dangerous. A better system of rules would change this for the better.


When dealing with ganking and its consequences in an MMO, the situation becomes far more complicated since one player’s desired experience might conflict with another player’s desired experience as in the Twixt situation that L.B. Brought up in his first post. But still, ganking is not always a negative thing; it can also be used as a makeshift workaround for a poor system of rules, like being forced to piggyback experience off higher level players in order to play with high-level friends in City of Heroes. In an MMO, since you’re now dealing with many players instead of one, it seems to me that me that the best that the developer can do is try and make the game’s experience as pleasant as possible for as many gamers as possible. Therefore, popular opinion rules. Popular opinion ruled that Twixt exploited the teleport power, that he ganked the game in a bad way, so the developers “broke” the teleport power. Popular opinion ruled it was too hard to level up in City of Heroes, and as a result, players ganked the game in a good way.  Thus, the developers changed the rules to better fit the needs of the people.


As L.B. said, need precedes game design.


This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and continues in Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 2: “Ganking” Broken Systems in Video Games before concluding here.


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