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Thursday, Feb 19, 2009
Several interesting studies on the impact of video games on the subconscious and dreams.


A professor of psychology at Grant MacEwan College, Jayne Gackenbach, has conducted several studies on the relationship that gamers have with their dreams. The basic observation is that gaming has a traceable impact on the unconscious and this can often be seen in the dreams of various gamers.


So far the studies have explored three different things: cognitive factors, emotional content, and bizarreness in dreams associated with video game play. The strongest link in the studies found that high-end gamers typically experience more lucid dreams where the subject was aware that they were dreaming and could control their activities. A two-part series of studies found that although gamers were more aggressive (based on interviews) than the average person in their dreams, they also experienced aggressive dreams overall less than the norm. This led to another study, whose data is still being analyzed, but Gackenbach hypothesizes that daytime video game play may serve as a rehearsal for threat function that dreams may serve. This is based on the theory that our nightmares are actually survival mechanisms in which we undergo traumatic events in our dreams to prepare for them in the real world. The surprising discovery during many of these long interviews was that the typical “Being Chased” and “Can’t Escape” scenario of many nightmares did not frighten gamers. As Gackenbach notes in her conclusion to one of the studies, what better way to prepare for a dream than by constantly engaging in an out-of-body virtual reality?


Speaking for myself, not all of this applies to my dreams but a few elements struck a chord. I don’t often dream about things from games but I rarely have anything I’d call a nightmare. I don’t experience anything along the lines of Waking Life, but my dreams rarely feel out of control. Whenever I’m being chased in a dream, I just go someplace safe, wonder why I’m dreaming this weird stuff, get chased again, go someplace else. It’s all instinct and reaction but I rarely find any of it frightening. You can find the PowerPoint presentations and hard data from the research here. What is extremely unusual about


all

of this data is that typically lucid and out-of-body dreams require a great deal of meditation. Nightmares, which are often the product of real-life trauma such as being assaulted or post-traumatic stress disorder, may be significantly less unpleasant for people who play games.


There were several other observation that need to be corroborated with further data. Gamers may have a higher average number of dreams that feature little to no actual people and instead involve animals or other fantasy creatures. They also might experience more out of body or third person dreams than the average dreamer. It would be extremely helpful to Gackenbach’s study if anyone with a remote interest would fill out the survey offered here.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 19, 2009
Examining exactly why 2007's Puzzle Quest was such a success.

Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.


The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…


...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.


While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.


This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.


What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.


Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).


Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.


Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.


What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.


Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Feb 16, 2009
A few basic concepts in games and their origins.


Ralph Koster coined the term ‘game grammar’ to describe the basic systems that the average gamer becomes familiar with and relies on when trying a new game. The skills involved in moving in a 3-D space, the way interactive objects behave (as opposed to static ones), and just a fundamental grasp of game stats are all things a player learns and then relies on when trying new games. Indeed, as the smoke clears and the initial skirmishes of the console war settle into the long march Nintendo’s victory is being attributed to the fact that they invented a console which excels at teaching these mechanics to new gamers. Far from being simply casual, Nintendo has instead created a system that is playable by people who have never touched a video game in their life but would like to. Although there is still some contention on figuring out what this newfound audience wants to play, it occurred to me that perhaps we could begin work on bridge games that might draw them into the more complex genres. Lacking the ability to actually make said games, I thought I’d opt for the next best thing and try to explain the basics of gameplay to someone who has only played Wii Sports at this point in their development.


 


Moving in 3-D Spaces: In a video game you’re typically in charge of both your avatar and the camera observing him. You’re welcome to think of yourself as the “director & actor” but that’s kind of meta. Being able to maintain a decent angle on your character that lets you see the most information is the best camera angle, so it’s better to imagine that you’re a very bad cinematographer and a very good stuntman. Some games simplify this by making themselves a “First-Person” game in which your camera is lodged in your character’s skull, but those get tricky because you have to precisely aim the camera at the person you want to kill. Left analog stick controls your movement, right analog stick controls your camera. You’re always going to be pressing or moving your character in most games, so navigating in 3-D Spaces is mostly learning when it’s time to change your view.


Taking Damage: In order to help connect you to your surroundings and develop a meaningful relationship with the things in a video game, designer often make it so they can kill you. Activities that can kill you often correspond to their real life counterparts and thanks to several advances in animating these moments will often gratuitously resemble them. If the character you are moving around is slapped with a brick, this will adversely affect their health just like it would affect yours if this happened in real life. Unlike real life, you will typically be able to absorb a large but still finite amount of visually accurate injuries.


Health: Rather than correspond to a medically or physiologically sound concept of health, games tend to think of health like a pizza. Taking damage means a certain number of slices are taken away. Yet also like pizza, slices can be replaced very easily and generically since it’s all just pizza anyways. When the pizza is gone, you will be forced to revert back to a moment in the game when you still had some pizza. Various games will allow you to replenish your pizza through items in-game that you either step on or go to a “menu” to use. Newer games, realizing that this is very troublesome for new gamers, have made it so your pizza will just grow back.


Missions: The purpose or goal of a game can vary wildly and may involve paying attention to the plot. A group of high-profile Existentialists initiated a Humanist Ontological Movement back in the early 90’s to break the nihilistic pain worshippers that came from the elitest arcade scene. These people sought to apply an outside logic to the meaningless chaos of beeping and pixels that constituted most video games. Adopting a narrative structure similar to our own psychological need to think of things as stories, these games created “missions” that the player would perform and then receive the existential leap of being released of their mortal coil and experiencing life free of all purpose, all non-purpose, and only being one with the divine urge of both purpose and fulfilling that obligation to the universe.


 


Game Items: Objects in games can typically be broken down into three categories: objects you can’t affect, objects you can pick-up, and fire barrels. An object you can’t affect will often be very deceptive and unlike taking damage, does not reflect its real life counterpart. The average tree in a video game, for example, can survive numerous grenades and heavy machine gun fire. These objects must, like death, be accepted as a part of the game. Objects you can pick up typically glow. Depending on the ease that the developers are attempting, these objects will either glow brighter than a Christmas tree or only blink when you’re looking at them. Fire Barrels are part of an international conspiracy by the game developing community to protest oil and fuel industries. In order to maximize profits and encourage people to not drive their cars by staying home and gaming, all things gasoline are highly dangerous and this subconsciously makes the player become filled with dread whenever they near a gas station. 


Sandbox Games: Not to be outdone, the nihilist arcade groups reorganized themselves into a sect of agrarian evangelical anthropromorphists and created the sandbox genre out of which the human spirit can “truly grow and prosper”. In these games the play is often confronted with a huge array of options and is encouraged to pursue them all until they discover the one “true path” to full growth and expression by following the plot missions. Their motto, “The right to die in a game is the right to succeed”, can often be found dispersed throughout their works.
Experience Points: A Japanese sect of neo-confucianists who believe in life as a series of diegetic levels created a type of role playing game in which your engagement with dull day to day tasks provides the ability for you to go on greater and more exciting missions involving the plot.


 


As you can see, there really is nothing at all to playing the more advanced games in the medium. So long as you understand the cultural trends and values going on, you should be able to start pwew pwewing in no time! If anything, part of what makes games so fun is that the player input allows you to assign your own values to the game. One person’s love interest is another person’s baggage, one person’s epic plot is another person’s skipped cutscene. As The New Yorkers write-up on Cliff Bleszinski illustrated to many readers, the meaning in games is often personally derived instead of broadcasted by an arbitrary author. While Cliff made a mission that was about going home to a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, many just players chainsawed apart another alien in co-op mode. How you play games is a part of how that meaning is derived, how you learn that play is an intrinsic part of the experience. That’s both what makes video games so profound and yet still capable of entertaining the most basic impulses and desires. It’s a good thing too, or else some batshit critic could just post a bunch of nonsense and act like he was making a point.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Feb 11, 2009
A new art game that takes less than 5 minutes and poses an interesting question.

Andy Chalk over at The Escapist has a great column on Art Games and the interesting direction they’re moving in. What is continually being pushed is not so much games that have beautiful art or meaningful plots, but rather exploring the very definition of play and gaming. Games don’t really tell stories like a film or book does since the player discovers this element through interaction, so it’s logical that ground zero would be pushing that to the limits.


The column goes through the usual tail-chasing that games undergo when trying to convince people that abstract interaction has merit: there’s no challenge, there’s no goals, there’s no meaningful choices, etc. It all starts to echo of “But that’s just not how it’s done!”, which naturally just goads people into making more of it. Of particular interest was a game I’d never heard of before, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. The game is simple: a black screen with a white progress bar appears when you start. It then goes around the internet checking to see if other people have the game turned on. If you can go 4 minutes and 33 seconds without anyone else playing the game, you win.


The funny thing about interaction is that you’re basically exploring two different things: the action and the effect. Whereas a game like The Graveyard is an experiment in action with no effect, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is an exploration of effect with no action. Is it possible for a person to generate a meaningful result by not doing anything? Vice-versa? I don’t really know. There are only a handful of games out that are really pushing these concepts and it remains to be seen where it’s all going. A game design like this might feel flat on its own, but combined with other elements it could potentially be quite profound. As far as I know, no one has managed to beat these games just yet.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009
The crafting of a legacy in Eternal Darkness. Spoilers Abound.


One of the curious byproducts of video game narratives is that the person you are investing your time and energy into must inadvertently always remain relevant to the plot. The dilemma that comes up is that you are now having a character who can blast their way through dozens of foes and has saved the world several times over. Assuming it’s monsters all the way down for the game, you can either adjust their backstory to explain why they are the ultimate badass, have everyone remain bizarrely oblivious, or break up the narrative into playing as multiple characters. The problem with the first option is that it ceases to make sense for the player to ever lose if they are indeed this badass, the second is just painful, and the third means crafting a game design that doesn’t suffer when different characters are played. What makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem interesting is that it takes the third option and runs with it. You play a wide range of sometimes strong and sometimes weak characters. What links them together is a common goal spanning several centuries to try and prevent an ancient God from taking over our world. Incorporating the idea of building a legacy instead of one individual is what makes Eternal Darkness stand out even today.


 


The game opens with your Uncle extolling the impenetrable mystery of life and how we are often too little aware of the consequences of our own actions. Roivas explains that our perceptions do not change reality, but rather color them. To commiserate this sentiment the game uses a similar tactic to Silent Hill 2 by dropping us into a combat situation before it explains any controls. Alex is locked in her room, surrounded by undead, and trying to figure out how to use the shotgun in her hand. The outcome is pre-defined, but because the controls require you to hold R1 before you shoot you can’t just button mash your way out of it. This turns out to be a nightmare but the introduction’s horror of the unknown has been established using the game design. Alex Roivas, who could be considered the game’s overall protagonist, awakens from this nightmare to discover that her Uncle has been murdered. The police don’t understand what happened to him and the detective bumbles his way around talking to us. Making the conversation more poignant are his half-hearted attempts to hit on you, emphasizing the insecurity the player feels after the game’s nightmarish start and Alex’s own vulnerability. Control is finally handed over to the player and we are given free reign over the bottom floor of the mansion. Outside it is eternally sunset, a thematic nod to the game’s setting of an approaching darkness that will corrupt the world.


 


A few simple puzzles later and the game’s basic structure is underway. Your character discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Each time they read it or find a page, a brief level is unlocked where you become a different character. Starting all the way at the beginning of the mystery, you slowly uncover the full story of how the Roivas family got caught up in a god’s attempt to return to the corporeal realm. The abilities won and even mental trauma accrued in each level will build back onto both Alex and subsequent users of the tome. In this way the book itself acts as the accumulated power and experience of the player rather than any individual character. You’re not upgrading a person, you’re building a legacy through the book. Each character in a mission is summoned to the book and must act out their part in its history. Complimenting the themes of horror and struggle is a combat system that never quite grants the player an enormous edge. In terms of fighting, each character is going to pick up a different weapon, have a different level of health & magic, and have a different kind of combat scenario to face. There is no stockpiling ammo or saving the best weapon, your circumstances are always changing from level to level. It is the accumulated knowledge of the book that the player is building, not any one particular hero.


 


The opening chapter begins with how the entire problem got started: a lone Roman Centurion whose blind loyalty to one Emperor ends with his enslavement to a new, bigger one. Pious is willing to exchange freedom for power, humanity for knowledge, and feels no doubts about this conduct. He is the only character you play who does not experience sanity loss at the monsters, reflecting his own indefatigable faith in himself and his actions. After his body is changed and he becomes the servant of one of three Gods, he is shown still loyally wearing his centurion armor. He will wear it all the way to the end of the game. Elia, the second character, is shown reading a book full of fanciful myths that echoes Alex’s own position as reading a book about fantastic events. She is equally burdened by a God and loses her life as a consequence. A messenger trying to foil a plot to kill Emperor Charlemagne, a Persian treasure hunter, and your own ancestors make up just a few of the characters you’ll play as. What binds these characters is not their inevitable discovery of a conspiracy we are watching manifest from afar, but the realization that their individual contribution is not enough to defeat the darkness. Elia is murdered and forced to spend centuries as a lost spirit, only to be found years later by another adventurer. Bianchi the architect is dumped into the Hellish tower of tormented souls he helped to build. It is not until the Iraq War that a firefighter stumbles upon the tower and recovers the essence of a God that Bianchi found. Paul Luther, a Franciscan monk, discovers Pious’s machinations only to be killed by the hideous beast he is concealing. 431 years later a reporter during World War I discovers the same conspiracy but is able to stop the monster. Your ancestor Maximillian discovers a huge underground city underneath his mansion, but he is locked in the mad house when he tries to warn others. Your grandfather came close to sealing the city underground forever, but not close enough. The fragility of the player, the people involved in this vast mystery, and the constant struggle to make any positive progress creates a genuine sense of uncertainty. You never know what’s going to happen to each of the characters you play as. In this way the mystery is slowly unraveled in reverse for Alex, a nod to the Roivas name itself which is savior spelled backwards.


 


Helping to generate a sense of continuity between all these characters is a consistent theme of place. Although you might play as twelve different people, you will be consistently exploring four different environments. A Sumerian temple in Iraq, another temple in Cambodia, a large Cathedral in France, and the Roivas Mansion in Rhode Island. Each one is depicted during different periods of history that allow for just enough changes to make them interesting to visit repeatedly yet are familiar enough that the player is able to feel competent revisting them. Since there is no sense of progression by developing an individual character, Eternal Darkness creates one by allowing the player to develop the same familiarity the tome is providing to people within the narrative. They are relying on the knowledge they developed playing as other characters just as within the narrative characters are relying on what they have read in the book. The repetition of levels also allows the developers to make these spaces believable. The Roivas mansion is not some Resident Evil style palace with more rooms than Xanadu, it is a fairly large country manor with rooms and locations that seem plausible (until you head underground). The cathedral and temples follow similar suit; they’re large and have their trap rooms but they are just small enough that they don’t become ridiculous. The video game crutch of larger than life levels with incredibly ridiculous traps is no longer necessary thanks to the game’s setup, it instead relies on switching locations and time periods to facilitate a sense of progress. Paintings of each location are placed around the mansion, along with various artifacts and puzzles that were solved back while playing as another character. Having identifiable details to each area is fleshed out by placing those details in other locations and having them serve as reminders to the player.


 


What really makes this game stand out though are just the little touches. The torches will randomly pop, continually making the player jump out of their seat. The connection with real world events makes the game’s plot become more grounded than the average fantasy. The ominous whispering in the background, the incessant banging on doors, and the book itself make up the true scares of this game. Every character who uses the book must walk through a long hallway. Along each side is a person who has sacrificed their lives in its service. Along the walls and floor are their screaming faces, the pain and suffering the book causes for all who wield it. The common link between all of these people is not their abilities or their accomplishments, it is their mutual suffering for a greater task. This theme of building a legacy, of a dozen people contributing to a battle with a growing darkness, culminates in the Mansion. Depending on the player’s actions, the best sword in the game along with the artifacts she needs will be delivered by the last character in the book, who received it because of the actions of the others as well. In the final boss fight Alex uses the book to summon each person and have them attack Pious while he defends the summoning ritual. That the game design communicates this final battle as a legacy’s culmination, instead of an individual accomplishment, is what makes Eternal Darkness such an interesting take on survival horror.


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