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Tuesday, Nov 3, 2009
In what way has the design of the FPS changed in the past ten years?

A while back I was lucky enough to be asked to talk about what had caught my interest in the 2009 crop of video games for a Brainy Gamer podcast. The thing that caught my eye at that point was the curious rejection of a particular brand of FPS that was prevalent on the Wii and DS. Due to the technical limitations of these platforms, a game like The Conduit mostly takes place in hallways and arena structures. You’re always in a never-ending bunker, sewer, or science lab in the game. Another example would be the FPS titles like C.O.R.E. or Dementium: The Ward, which are also mostly indoor experiences. What was curious was that all of these games are receiving average scores on metacritic. In my review of The Conduit I pointed out that it mostly played like a game from 2000 or so. The same could be said about the DS titles, their level design and gameplay immediately bring to mind the old FPS days of Quake or even Doom. The player runs about a maze-like space, fighting monsters as they go, and unlock doors and flip switches to progress. What’s odd is that in an industry whose love of nostalgia can drive sales and scores of games like Shadow Complex and Mega Man 9, why is that one particular game design of fighting through indoor mazes mostly rejected? In what way has the design of the FPS moved on in the past ten years?


From http://www.khaldea.com

From http://www.khaldea.com


The initial answer would just be a common sense one: spatially comprehending and navigating a maze is easier to do in 2-D (or 2.5?) than from the FPS perspective. A wide open space is much easier to process mentally and navigate than a series of hallways that you are meant to sequentially enter. An interesting example of a modern game that still relies on the old formula is the F.E.A.R. series. Relying on a complex AI to create a game that’s chiefly about strategic squad encounters, the game’s levels are almost Kafka-esque for how much time you spend wandering around endless government buildings. In a write-up on the level design in F.E.A.R. 2, Steve Gaynor comments that the game is too linear in the options it gives players. You just walk into a room full of enemies and they start shooting at you. He writes, “Conversely, the best space is arena-like and varied, with an emphasis on flanking opportunities. The closer any given encounter space drifts towards the hallway model, the less interesting the gameplay there is going to be.” He applies all of this to a map that orients itself around a central point which is the conflict. Instead of being a line that you plod through, it’s a circle with varying degrees of cover and methods of engagement. He writes, “The most useful cover should be placed in the arena’s mid-orbital, the dense ring between the outer edge and the central point of the encounter space. This encourages the player to move into the thick of the action instead of hanging on the periphery, and leaves the central dead zone as a no-man’s land that remains risky to advance through, encouraging circular navigation.”


What Gaynor is describing is essentially an emergent form of level design, a principle best explained by Jesper Juul in his book half-real. You create a series of rules that link together in terms of strengths of weaknesses (think rock, paper, scissors) and then continue to compound and expand those rules into an elaborate web. Not all game elements have a direct strength/weakness relationship, but they are interlinked by mutual ludic aspects. Once you start making the focus of your game be about choices instead of linear engagement after linear engagement, you have to adopt new techniques for communicating information. Look at a design doc from a 2003 retrospective on Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, the level is essentially a long corridor that twists back and forth. An emergent level instead operates by creating a large and easily navigable series of clusters. In these levels the player never goes from room to room, you instead create a central space and then outlying rooms to explore. Citing another post by Gaynor on Bioshock, he explains the new principle behind this kind of level, “Minor spaces are always closer to major spaces than they are to other minor spaces—the player always passes through the hub to get to another spoke. The player never proceeds directly from spoke to spoke, getting lost without an identifiable anchor space to reorient themselves by.” Like the conflict nexus and circular structure of a well-designed combat situation, an entire level mirrors this same principle.


From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra

From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra


This is not to say that the linear structure has been abandoned, just that it has evolved far beyond its hallway roots. A game like Call of Duty 4 uses what might be described as a theme park ride approach to level design. The player will usually move down a wide corridor with multiple setpieces that travel between more emergent encounters like the one Gaynor describes. A careful visual language, pioneered by Valve and earlier games, helps orient the player to what they should be looking at. In that post, Matthew Gallant explains how Valve will have a flock of birds take off from a key passage or item to catch the player’s eye. Ammo and health items are often also placed where they can seen to attract the player’s interest. The player is still inside a big artificial hallway, but it feels real because they can explore the stage while being guided by a trail of visual and ludic bread crumbs. Call of Duty games also accomplish this feat by imposing objectives (like put a sticky bomb on this tank) or just having endless enemies shoot at you until you hit cover. Although not quite a wheel & spoke level, these games are incorporating tiny moments of emergent gameplay.


What defines the modern FPS, as opposed to similar games from even a mere decade ago, is the ability to break outside a linear path. One of the best analogies I’ve read on this modern take is from Michael Licht’s  Star Wars: Bounty Hunter retrospective. He compares brief bursts of player choice to soloing in jazz music. Licht explains, “When a Jazz musician plays, he has to follow the song as it is written for the most part. This is called “staying in the groove” and it’s what gives identity to the piece. But during the song there are certain opportunities for that artist to express himself through solos. This allows for variation in the piece without a complete departure from the overall song and keeps things from getting too repetitive or predictable.” It’s the moments you cut the player loose that make the game meaningful in the long run.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 30, 2009
The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke.

Whenever a critic of the gaming industry starts to decry the level of violence in games, the response is generally the same. It’s standard to point out that violence in games pales when compared to the more explicit violence and gore in movies. While that may be true when comparing a game like GTA IV (the mass media’s favorite whipping boy) to a movie like Hostel, it doesn’t hold up for games versus movies in general. If we go by gallons of blood spilt, games are more violent and gory than movies by a longshot. But what’s the real effect of all this violence? A little blood is realistic, lots of blood is scary, but the geysers that often fly from enemies in games is cartoonish. The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke. Any message or deeper meaning the game might have is lost because no one takes it seriously.


Gears of War 2 is a prime example of this sideshow gore. It embraces violence as one of its selling points but also tries to be serious at times. When we chainsaw a Locust in half, the camera rotates slightly giving us a better view of the chainsaw cutting into our enemy; blood spews out and splashes all over the camera to emphasize the very bloody nature of this kill. A lot of care and attention to detail went into this short scene because it’s important, it’s our reward for getting in close for a kill. We could have shot at the alien from the relative safety of distance, but instead we chose to get in close where we could have been easily flanked or killed by a single well-placed shotgun blast or been punched and cut in half ourselves. The violence has been embellished to the point of ridiculousness, and that’s why it works as an entertaining reward.


It’s interesting that the most emotional scene in the game is completely bloodless. When Dom finally finds Maria, his missing wife, she steps out of a tiny cell looking normal and healthy. They embrace, and when the camera pulls back, we realize that we’re seeing her through Dom’s eyes, and in reality, she’s nothing more than an emaciated skeleton that is mentally dead. But there’s no blood. There are scars on her face, we can see her bones through her skin, but no blood is presented in the secne. Gears of War 2 embraces bloody mayhem as it’s chief attraction, but the lack of it here suggests that this scene is not supposed to be enjoyed, this scene is meant to be taken seriously. But it doesn’t work.


Gamers make fun of the Maria subplot in Gears of War 2 because that single moment of seriousness is out of place in the game. It really is a powerful moment, but when surrounded by ultraviolent fun, it alone can’t grab the player’s attention and make him care.


Where ultraviolence helps make a message clearer is in parodies. Madworld and No More Heroes are two of the most violent games on consoles, let alone on the Wii, and both have embraced their cartoonish ultraviolence by becoming cartoons. They parody other violent games by exaggerating other aspects of the game, the art style, boss fights, and characters to the same extent as the violence. In this context, the ultraviolence seems normal, but being normal in these kinds of over-the-top worlds serves to showcase how out of place it is in purportedly realistic games.


Games must learn restraint before they can be taken seriously, however, “restraint” doesn’t just mean less violence. Bloodless violence is common in games rated anything but M, and this kind of violence is often seen as childish, as the removal of something graphic in order to make it more appealing to a younger audience. So to avoid this unwanted label and to make themselves immediately stand out, M rated games tend to go to the opposite extreme but end up looking just as juvenile. It’s then up to that player to actively try and get over his immediate preconceived notion that these games are just over-the-top mindless fun. There’s nothing wrong with a little ultraviolence, but not every M game has to embrace it to the degree that’s currently popular. Everything in moderation.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009
The game is less interested in presenting a building simulation (as the previous games in the series were) as it is in presenting a world of mystery where persistence, not problem solving, is key to resolving a mystery.
There are also a few badly-scared champions of the formal or the classic mystery who think no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them. Such would point out, for example, that in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story) because the reader is kept thinking about something else. Yet in The Glass Key the reader is constantly reminded that the question is who killed Taylor Henry, and exactly the same effect is obtained; an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlor.
—Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

In attempting to distinguish the hard boiled detective story from the kind of “parlor” detection of traditional British detective fiction, Raymond Chandler suggested that a distinct difference emerges in the interests of these two subgenres of mystery.  The latter “classic” form is concerned with solving a formal problem.  Hard boiled or American crime fiction is more concerned with setting a tone and resolving mysteries through movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the elucidation of character.  What this difference boils down to in practice is that detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot become logicians that draw conclusions based on careful studies of evidence and formal problem solving all while sipping tea in the parlor.  Detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade don’t so much investigate by reasoning out solutions as much as they get their hands dirty by wading into the muck of the world that a crime takes place in in order to see what might shake out.


The British detective is brilliant, insightful, and driven by logic.  The American detective is persistent.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009
A breakdown of the arguments made in Espen J. Aarseth's seminal video game text.

Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext is one of the first, and arguably strongest, books to outline how games work as their own artistic medium. Written from 1989 to 1997, it details a wide range of textual interactions that attempt to identify the interactive component of electronic media: the act of traversing and controlling a text. He defines a cybertext as “a machine for the production of a variety of expressions” (3). This does not have to be just a computer interaction. The oldest example of a cybertext is the I-Ching: “the Chinese book of oracular wisdom that is used (rather than simply read) in a ritual that involves writing down a question, manipulating coins or yarrow stalks to produce a path (out of 4,096 possible paths) through the text, and consulting certain of the book’s 64 fragments to reach an answer to the question”(66). Interacting with a system in a way that makes the experience unique to the individual is the distinguishing element from a traditional book or film. A user is not just reacting to embedded meaning like they do when they read a book, they are exploring and configuring it based on its interaction model.


Part of the context of the book is that Aarseth is arguing against the post-structuralist conception of video games as meaning play, a group who “tried to show the inner contradictions of concepts such as sign, structure, work, and author in order to foreground the metaphysical nature of these innocent-looking terms” (83). Post-structuralism is the theory that two people can sit down, read the same book, and have two different understandings of its meaning because of their personal backgrounds and varying attention spans. Your desires and personality will dictate your understanding of a book. To the post-structuralist, gameplay is just an extension of that concept. What Aarseth points out is that portions of a cybertext will be cut off and will never be seen depending on your actions. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (41).


Accepting that there are connections between literature and games is still important, and Aarseth goes to great lengths to explain that there is a specific type of literature that games overlap with. He borrows research from Penelope Reed Doob to highlight this distinction. There are two models for a book: “the unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually towards a center; and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of critical choices, or bivia” (6). What happened in literature was that people started to move away from the unicursal idea of a book and started pushing for a multicursal model. It’s the difference between just reading something in a linear progression and having a book that you’re meant to hop around and absorb in a disjointed fashion. For example, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a long poem with numerous optional footnotes that tell their own independent story while commenting on the poem. You can still read it and understand it without looking at any of these footnotes but reading them enhances and nuances the narrative. The more popular example would be a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, which Aarseth declares is also a cybtertext. He explains, “a cybertext must contain some kind of information feedback loop. In one sense, this holds true for any textual situation, granted that the ‘text’ is something more than just marks upon a surface. A reader peruses a string of words, and depending on the reader’s subsequent actions, the significance of those words may be changed, if only imperceptibly.” (19)


Like myself and other writers discussing video games, one approach to games breaks the gaming experience into a triangle of player, design, and narrative but Aarseth opts instead for operator, verbal sign, and medium (21). Aarseth tears into the concept of analyzing just the narrative of a game by pointing out that the expressive component of a book or picture in terms of the audience is at best trivial. You can read the book aloud and modulate. You can string together a bunch of pictures to create a movie. Yet the transition from source to expression is still minimal; the act of expressing a text or picture can only be minorly adjusted through that expression. Aarseth notes, “To write is not the same as to speak; listening and reading are different activities, with different positions in the communicative topology” (163). Instead, he believes that between player and game “the relationship might be termed arbitrary, because the internal, coded level can of course be fully experienced by way of the external, expressive level.” There are multiple layers of meaning occurring in a game that go far beyond the surface and instead come from the ludic elements that the narrative is built upon.


From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie


To Aarseth, that’s the problem with the post-structuralist stance: “identical signifiers do not guarantee identical meanings.” (83) Being at full health at one point in the game is not the same thing as being at full health in another. Their theories do

provide interesting insights into the more advanced possibilities for meaning in games, but they don’t really address the mechanical issues at work. Using Roland Barthes own argument Aarseth writes, “Tmesis, claims Barthes, is not a figure of the text but a figure (at the time) of reading: the author ‘cannot choose to write what will not be read’ (47). The validity of the assertions that Aarseth makes depends on what type of game you’re talking about as well. Everyone who has played Half-Life 2 went through the game in roughly the same manner so that the missed details are trivial or minor. Where it becomes more interesting is in the more emergent games that have variable outcomes besides “Die or Progress”. He writes, “The important lesson to be learned from discontinuous and forking texts is that when two readers approach a text they do not have to encounter the same words and sentences in order to agree that it probably was the same text” (74).


How then do the relationships between player, designer, and machine pan out? Since you have no control over the final text of a game as the player, can it actually even be said you have written something in the Aristotelian sense? (84). Aarseth argues that the player engages in a contract with the cybertext. Discussing interactive fiction he explains, “The contract between user and text in ‘interactive fiction’ is not merely a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ but a willing suspension of one’s normal capacity for language, physical aptness, and social interaction as well” (117). But if you’re not really authoring anything, what is the player’s role in a game? The book muses, “When I fire a virtual laser gun in a computer game such as Space Invader, where, and what, am ‘I’? Am I the sender or the receiver? I am certainly part of the medium, so perhaps I am the message…just as the game becomes a text for the user at the time of playing, so, it can be argued, does the user become a text for the game, since they exchange and react to each other’s messages according to a set of codes. The game plays the user just as the user plays the game, and there is no message apart from the play” (162).


From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/


Ultimately, accepting that a video game’s meaning comes from the interplay between user, ludic design, and plot requires abandoning an absolute emphasis on one particular element. Rather than think of narrative as the grand structure of everything, “the story of an event is not necessarily the same as the event itself, and stories can be told about things other than stories” (94). The concept of ergodic design, traversing a space and controlling the narrative instead of absorbing it “must have more than one explicit outcome and cannot, therefore, be successful or unsuccessful; this attribute here depends on the player” (113). Ultimately, the three elements collapse into one another to form a unique whole: “the user assumes the role of the main character and, therefore, will not come to see this person as an other, or as a person at all, but rather as a remote-controlled extension of herself” (113). The three elements are still distinct at key moments though, such as when you die without intending to in a game, so that there is still a distinct player who is learning to play and improve. Aarseth makes the same argument that people still have to make today, “To achieve interesting and worthwhile computer-generated literature, it is necessary to dispose of the poetics of narrative literature and to use the computer’s potential for combination and world simulation in order to develop new genres that can be valued and used on their own terms” (140).


Looking back at the now almost ten year old book, I’m sympathetic to the fact that many of these ideas and principles are now considered self-evident. Aarseth himself admits in the last chapter that the book will probably date rapidly as technology advances, but what’s remarkable about his work is how much of it is still true today. Even if most people are willing to accept that a game emphasizing just plot or design is not as compelling as when the two are merged skillfully, the process of how to do that has hardly been answered. Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Jesper Juul are all grappling with the techniques of that combination in their own way. Aarseth, struggling to make sense of the medium in the mid-1990s before video games were even totally acceptable amongst my own generation, is mostly concerned about the gap forming between people who are engaging with the technology and people who are not. In the final chapter, he ponders the flaws of a growing group of people who are familiar and engaged with the medium. Doing so, “reduces our possibility to empathize with those who are not using the same technology as we, be they our less well-endowed colleagues or our historical predecessors, the texts’ creators or their contemporary readers” (169). As the generation gap widens and the staggering complexity of things like video games continues to grow, what is probably the most worrisome is that those who continue to dismiss them are ultimately just going to be left behind.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 23, 2009
A look at the various incarnations of torture in games.

Saw VI comes out today, the latest movie in the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror. When this sub-genre first began to grow in popularity, many film critics lamented that torture had become something entertaining, but in all the time since then, horror games have not jumped to cash in on the trend. Horrow games have changed dramatically over the six years since Saw was first released but not along the same lines that their filmic counterparts have. Horror games have become more action packed thanks to Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, all but ignoring the seeming popularity of torture. It seems those critics can breathe a sigh of relief because, while certain horror fans enjoy watching torture, it seems that they also don’t want to partake in it directly.


That’s not to say there are no instances of torture in modern horror games. One scene near the end of Silent Hill: Homecoming feels ripped straight out of Hostel. The hero is tied to a chair while a cultist stabs a drill into his leg, and a few quick-time events later he’s free and the drill is sticking out of the cultist’s eye. Then there are the Manhunt games in which players are forced to participate in a snuff film. And the franchise that arguably started it all, Saw, made its first jump to video games earlier this month. What’s interesting about all these examples of torture is that the player is always the victim, never the torturer. We’re tied to the chair in Silent Hill: Homecoming, we’re a killer in Manhunt, yes, but a killer forced to play the starring role in a snuff film. In the Saw game, we don’t play as Jigsaw but as a cop caught up in one of Jigsaw’s maniacal, elaborate traps. Every torture device that we come across has someone else stuck inside it and solving the trap plays out like a mini puzzle game. This allows for a variety of play that we wouldn’t get to participate in if we had control over Jigsaw because torturing people just isn’t an interesting game mechanic.


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