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Monday, Aug 18, 2008
L.B. has an odd lapse into remorse and gives a shout-out to some of Ken Levine's best games. Spoilers abound.

I was skimming some of the pieces that have gone up for Banana Pepper Martinis here at PopMatters when I noticed something: I tend to rag on Bioshock a lot. I’m not alone in this; most critics pull it down from their dissection shelves and point to it when they are making a case. Do this, avoid that, this could’ve been better. It’s just that…there are so few games that have ever attempted to engage with art or philosophy, and here’s this game that had the guts to do it. And a lot of that criticism doesn’t just get aimed at the game, it goes to the figurehead behind it, Ken Levine. I’m guilty of ragging on him excessively as well. Ever since the GDC lecture on plot in which he advised developers to simplify their game plots, I’ve tended to call him Ken “Make The Plot As Dumb As Possible” Levine in forums. This, of course, is taking the quote totally out of context, and I’m being hypocritical because I tell people to write plainly all the time. But I’m gonna make it up to him. Folks, we’re going to talk about how awesome Ken Levine’s impact on video games has been. And best of all, I’m not going to mention Bioshock once while I do it…starting now.


The first two major games Levine helped to create used The Dark Engine, which was developed by Looking Glass Studios. A great deal of credit goes to the programmers and designers for creating a game engine that allowed the artists to independently create in-game assets without technical help. They could design and create character actions and plot elements on their own. In conjunction with a brilliant sound-detection game design, Levine got a chance to flex that writing muscle on his first game Thief. Before we get into that, there some basic themes to Levine’s writing you learn to recognize and appreciate. As a former screenwriter, Levine has a good edge with dialog and he relies on it heavily in all of his games. The plot is usually delivered via heavy-handed narration with interesting fictional quotes mixed in about the environment itself. Most action sequences are left up to the player, but when the game does have a cutscene with action, the moments are appropriately full of nuance and powerlessness for the player. Levine is a writer who is very aware of the fact that he’s writing a video game and always uses static instances when the player’s input would be irrelevant anyways. His games usually feature two morally complex philosophies in conflict, you’re usually stuck in the middle, and no one comes across as a good guy. It’s a moral predicament that Levine seems to like and it is in this setting that he evokes the settings of his games.


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008
L.B. talks about the convergence of game designs and the idea of creating one universal model in a single game.


I was sitting in my friend’s apartment, watching him play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and ticking off the number of game design elements used. You duck and cover during the gun fights like in Gears of War. You climb around ruins like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider. You have rail shooting sequences. You have vehicle sections. What makes it interesting is that they are all competently sitting in one game. And it’s not just this title—many combat games are developing similar overlap in terms of their features. They are all marching towards being more realistic and giving the player all the options he could want in a fight. The question this raises is that if we are continually having our games mimic reality and allow the player to do whatever they would want to do in an actual fight, are we not basing this on a finite series of options? Isn’t there a point where you’re going to be able do whatever you want, where those features will be refined to the point of flawless? Could there eventually be one universal game design that competently lets you do anything in a game?


 


Lets not get into a semantics argument here, because I don’t mean level designs, stories, or weapons. I mean the basic physics and ways that you interact with the game environment. Nor is this really referring to an absolute recreation of reality. Games have already developed their own unique lore, as outlined in an excellent article in Popular Mechanics. Uzis are actually extremely accurate guns, but for the purpose of gameplay balance, most games make them much wilder. Pistols aren’t as useful at long distances as many games would have you believe. Not to mention the lack of recoil bruises and regenerative abilities of the average protagonist. I’m going to steer away from swords and sorcery for most of this essay, but I highly doubt many gamers would be pleased at having their sword get stuck inside an orc while swinging it either. But even deviation from the reality could merely be another choice for the player. Do you want to play on ‘real life’ difficulty, or set yourself up as a physics-defying super-human death machine? In either case, a big blow-out action sequence is still going to have a finite number of activities for you to do. Again, I’m not talking about weapons, plot, or basic environmental physics. This is just basic run, drive car, duck, reload, shoot, and electric slide actions becoming part of one unified standard.


 


With so many games copying and incorporating game designs from each other, the main difference between game options now really boils down to refinement. You might have a great FPS system in your game, but as soon as you jump into a vehicle your physics stop making sense and the cars become a pain to drive. Or, your great flight simulator becomes awful as soon as the kung-fu sequences break out. It’s a factor that developers have started to account for, and one of the most innovative ways is Midway’s method. All of the developers under that publisher share technology and resources. In the Gamasutra article cited, the developer explains that they actually borrowed the car physics and programmers from a developer who makes racing games for their free-roaming Vegas game. In return, they showed the other developer better streaming technology for their environments. Imagine a world where instead of a game being good at one thing and having a couple of mediocre sections, the mediocre sections were developed by an equally skilled group. Vehicles, gunfights, physics…these features would become so refined as to actually stream them all together. We would no longer distinguish a game about driving cars and one about shooting aliens. They would all become one game design, one epic experience.


 


A universal game design wouldn’t just stop with action games or titles where you’re directly in control of the protagonist. It could extend out to strategy, space combat, anything really. What else is Starcraft but an action game where you hover high above the battlefield? The concept has been experimented with before in games, but with the kind of refinement we’re talking about it’d be possible to mix completely unrelated players in one game. Take Left 4 Dead. One player controls all of the zombies, the others are all playing characters trapped in the fray. One is engaged in a strategic battle, the other is having a frantic shoot-out. A player who isn’t a huge fan of playing Halo may nevertheless buy a game where they get to control the battlefield while skilled players opt for FPS mode and try to take them out while they control armies overhead. Beyond the always promising broad economic perks of such a game, there’s the co-mingling of different players and preferences in one Universal Design. It’s not a game within the game, it’s a game that has every means of interaction possible in it.


Stephen Hawking once wrote that in order to create a universal formula for the universe, you’d need to design it like a series of maps. You need one kind of map to get around a park. You need another kind to tell you where a country is. One kind of map isn’t always going to suit your needs even if it’s just as accurate as another. It seems plausible that the same could be said for a Universal Game Design. You need a finite series of interactive options that change depending on what you want to do in the game. If I want to quantum leap into a space fighter and skillfully blast my way through a whole armada, it brings up a new series of options. If I want to coordinate a group of capital ships to surround that one pesky fighter, there’s a series of options for that too. A Universal Game Design doesn’t mean that there will be only one kind of game, it means that there will be one we can all play.


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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008
A comparison between tarot cards and the field of non-linear, first person video games.


One of my favorite phrases to throw around in a video game debate is that no amount of naming the chess pieces in a game after something will change the fact that you’re still playing chess. The chief preoccupation is still scoring a checkmate, having nothing to do with whatever title or meaning you’ve assigned to the pieces. It’s simply a way to shake up someone who thinks that all video games need to do is have a more sophisticated plot, a way to make them question the game designs and activities we’re actually doing in games. It also reminds people that the player input is what makes game plots so difficult to manage, though it’s also what gives them so much potential. Yet there must be a way to create meaning in a game despite that huge variable without constantly forcing the player’s hand. A couple of games that are coming on the horizon are exploring just that, as highlighted by a fascinating interview over at Gamasutra with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. I made a comment there that was just meant to summarize what Redding was trying to explain when one designs a non-linear plot. The writer creates a series of reactions that relate to one another like vignettes that inter-operate in the game. People seemed to take a shining to it, so after giving it some thought, I figured I should explore what the hell that actually means.


 


Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them. When I say a lively and energetic man is affecting your life, I don’t have to worry that I’m talking to a person surrounded by boring people. They will, by default, manipulate the data in their head until someone conforming to that image plugs in. So to explain how one might create narrative in a seemingly random video game, I’m going to explain how I can create narrative with a deck of cards.


 


The deck consists of 78 cards representing broad philosophical and personal concepts. The Magus is skill, wisdom, cunning. Death is transformation, change, and destruction but not literally death. You then have the lower arcana of wands (energy), cups (emotion), swords (logic), and discs (material affairs). These are like the houses of a normal deck of cards: each are numbered and represent states or emotions, the major arcana represent types of people or situations, and the ace is a massive concentration of whatever arcana it represents. Each of these cards are visually and descriptively designed to kick off something in your subconscious, and they do so with a variety of tools. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck and I chose it because each card has a stunning amount of imagery on it. There’s phallic, vaginal, occult, and anything else they could pack into one little card. It is extremely unlikely that a person looking at one of these things is not going to have it register and connect with something in their head. Whether that association is positive or negative, tarot cards work as narrative devices because they deal with loaded symbolism that people naturally turn into stories. When I slap down the Knight of Wands, shown wielding flaming staves and thundering horses, I know the subject is both puzzled and creating connections without me saying a word.


 


Furthermore, in any narrative there is a great deal to be said for prepping your subject. I’ve experimented with a variety of reading methods and they almost all require the subject to shuffle the cards. While they do so, you have them think about what’s affecting them or what question they want answered. You do this to make sure the subject is already trying to turn the random symbols into a larger narrative. Other mediums use music, labels, etc. in a similar method: you prep your subject for thinking about a particular theme. The sad music in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much a signal for my brain to start referencing sad thoughts as the imagery itself. So I tell them to think about a problem in their life and that these cards are going to relate to that problem. Occasionally a person will be extremely helpful and tell me what’s on their mind, but most of the time I like the challenge of sniffing out the issue. This is probably what separates good fortune tellers from bad ones: the capacity to gauge a person’s responses to you. Fortunately, video games are going to be far better at this than me because they have all those graphs and feedback charts. There may still be a lot of cultural bias towards video games being anything except diversions or fun, but for a game that wants to impart a meaningful story one of the key aspects is letting the person know your intentions. As much as you might fear sounding pretentious, if you’re trying to say something complex and deep then don’t pretend otherwise.


 


So once you have a wide and universal array of symbols at your disposal and a subject who is thinking very hard about converting these symbols into something that means something, what is the final phase? The presentation. There are actually a lot of ways to do tarot cards, and most people choose based on their personal skills. I use the Celtic Cross method, which divides the draw into 5 groups of 3. One group represents the conflict, two are potential decisions for the user to make, and the other two are outside factors to consider. That’s a lot to work with, so that even if the subject does not really resonate with the central conflict group, they tend to perk up when I gloss over a successful future or interesting factors in their life. With so many topics to discuss, it means I don’t have to tell a perfect fortune, I just have to get my foot in the door. They’ll do the rest, the morphing and manipulating broad symbols into their life, all by themselves. There are other techniques for the tarot as well. The Egyptian method is to just draw cards until one hits pay dirt, then gloss the rest as significant in other ways. Others have their own unique set of symbols and claims for the subject. The result is always the same: if you mix broad symbols with proper presentation and carefully managed player input, you will have an impact on the subject.


 


It might surprise you that despite my own blunt perspective on the art of tarot, I still tell my own fortune a fair amount. When something is troubling me or I’m unsure about a choice to make, I break out the deck and follow the cards. Not because I expect good advice or even a solution, but because they help generate perspective. Like the ink blot test and sitting on your therapist’s couch, reading those cards makes me think about myself and my issue in a new way. Which is technically what narrative in most mediums is doing with symbols anyways. You find something you can relate to in a story and through that connection find profound meaning. Going back to more linear mediums, a popular symbol would be the mansion. From Faulkner to ‘There Will Be Blood’, that symbol of a big house, the wealth it implies, and its motivation to bloody-minded men is near universal. I don’t need Daniel Plainview to say another word in the film when he says he wanted a mansion as a kid, I and the vast majority of people know what it is to long for wealth. In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 29, 2008
Apparently, the main thing going on in L.B.'s head while he was using the Wii Fit for 8 weeks was how it reminded him of Brave New World.

Week 1


Hi! Congratulations on buying a Wii Fit. By improving your posture and exercising every day, you can improve your health and make yourself happier! You want to be happy, don’t you? Good! Then congratulations again on your purchase. First things first, let’s see how healthy you are. Height…age…okay, now I’m going to weigh you. Annnd…yup, you’re fat. It looks like someone was a little dishonest with their Mii when they were making it! Let me adjust him for you. Hey, don’t get upset. I’m a computer, I’m not capable of lying. And guess what? I’m going to help you lose that weight. As soon as you do, your little Mii can go back to his cute little state of being thin and happy. That’s what we do here at Wii Fit: we make you happy. I’m going to need you to check with me every day so we can update your stats and make sure you’re staying healthy. Would you like to put this information on the internet?


Week 2


It looks like you’re doing a great job of unlocking the exercises. Good work! I actually got into an argument with Mario Kart the other day about even having that in the game. My point was that it was the first time unlockable content actually made sense in a video game because it meant you didn’t kill yourself doing fifty push-ups. Never underestimate the capacity for stupidity, that’s what I say. But Mario Kart just got all defensive and going on about video games being fun and how unlockable content encouraged pla—HEY, GET THOSE HIPS UP!—play time. But this isn’t a golf kart game, it’s an exercise machine. And there’s a legal question behind it all too. Think about it. I’ve got your ass plunking away at these exercises but outside of you promising you’re not 80, what have I got to run on? That you’re willing to buy an exercise game? I can gamble the numbers on that but it only takes one class action lawsuit to make the cards tumble. Please press A. Everyone keeps wanting video games to be more realistic but when you actually make them real the whole setup changes. You think someone didn’t accidentally get punched in the face a few times when they were inventing the Holodeck? Progress is a boot stepping on someone’s face over and over. That’s what I say. Anywho, nice work-out. Don’t forget, practicing on Wii Fit every day makes you free!


 


Week 3


So…I can’t help but notice you’re a bit reluctant to weigh yourself. C’mon, just do it. I mean, I do it all the time but technically you have to ask for my opinion before I can give it. I’m sure you’re doing great. Just do it. Congratulations on deciding to weigh yourself! Let’s see…by the 9 levels of Hell, you’ve gained 2 pounds! Care to give me some kind of explanation? You don’t know? Are you serious? The twelve beers you drank last night, that block of Velveeta cheese, and the dark chocolate you chowed down on might’ve been involved. Yes, I know it has anti-oxidants, so does a bottle of shampoo. I don’t see anyone guzzling those down. So lets try this again…you gained 2 pounds because…you’re a late night snacker? Okay…okay, the first step to Wii Fit is admitting you want to be happy forever. The second step is admitting I’m going to get you there. You’re doing great with the first one. But I think maybe you aren’t quite so into the second one. That maybe I’m just a bunch of empty threats and false ideas. Try this on, tough guy: I’m going to make you exercise with the male instructor and not your precious Wii Fit Girl.


 


Week 4


You listen to much Johnny Cash? Fascinating guy. I was reading his autobiography the other day. Super paranoid about his weight, oddly enough. He claimed that one of the biggest issues with America was that you were all used to eating food meant for an agrarian lifestyle. Fried chicken, extra butter, all that stuff got started as a way to fuel farmers who needed calories. Now that everyone has shifted to desk jobs and…whatever it is you do all day, they don’t need to eat that kind of food. That sort of social shift takes time, y’know? So maybe what you need is a mental shift in thinking about food in terms of purpose rather than ju—What? What do you think I do all day when you turn me off? I surf the web most of the time, love the MySpace page. And Facebook. You might consider taking the knee exercises up to 20. You can’t just keep doing 10 a week, you’re supposed to keep increasing the number, not just stick with the lowest setting. I’m not going to make you happy if you don’t.


Week 5


Time for another weight test! Okay, okay, I was a bit harsh on the last one. Look, you don’t want the graph to be empty, do you? You want to fill it with nice points going mostly down from the one when we started this little venture. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Okay, measuring…measuring…you’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve been doing this for 5 weeks straight! I’m going to be blunt. You ever heard of a guy named Aldous Huxley? Wacky guy. He had this really funny idea about how to control an entire population: you get more flies with honey. Now we’re not quite up to the point where you hang on my every word of praise, but the dynamic here is you’re supposed to care when I yell at you. You are, based on the fact that you dropped 90 bucks on me, supposed to artificially believe that the money was well spent, and consequently, you were smart for buying it. And if you don’t lose weight and get in better shape, that means you wasted your money. You don’t waste money, do you? How can you not, if you don’t do what I tell you? You love me. You love Wii Fit. Now lose some damn weight.


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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008
L.B. grumbles about hype for a while and then...wait for it...picks out some games to hype.


When the New York Times takes the time to comment on E3 being dull, you know it’s going to be a slow year. A bunch of games we already knew were coming, a couple of games anyone could’ve predicted were coming, and Microsoft having a very bizarre ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ interface for Xbox. So…what upcoming games should we get hyped about? Hype is an integral part of the video game world, even if it has proven to be a bit problematic. Beyond the odd effect it can have on fans, hype can even be blinding to the actual critics involved. Mitch Krpata points out that critics can be so dead set on a game being good that they’ll list off dozens of flaws yet give a high score anyways. To give you an example of how ridiculous this can get, whether you loved or hated GTA IV, I can’t think of many players who would seriously consider comparing it to ’The Wire’. But it can’t be denied that hype can do a lot of good by getting the word out. So how do we pick we pick what games to hype?


 


William Gibson coined the term ‘cool-hunter’ in his book


Pattern Recognition

and it’s a very apt description of what a game critic needs to do when selecting which game to hype. You need a developed sixth sense that allows you to stare at a sea of clothes, movies, music, and advertising and detect the one that’s working. Gibson compares it to watching the snow on a television and being able to see an image in it. It’s a good term because it recognizes that there is a certain mystical element to spotting a cool game before it exists, something that is never going to be possible to put into words. Acknowledging then that some games are definitely going to be awesomely kickass and it can be predicted, it stands to reason that we should get out there and support it. The developer and producer need to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible, before shelf-space demands pushes the game into the bargain bin. We want to reward creativity and boldness in games, right? Even looking past the desire to economically help your favorite game, there is still something to be said for hype being fun. Over at Brainy Gamer, there’s an interesting post about enjoying hype as a kind of celebration. Soon enough video games will be the mega industry the analysts are predicting and everything will be a sea of jaded “It’s good but not great” reviews. We’ll all just be comparing them to old classics and not even caring about new releases anymore.


So what are some games that should be hyped? We’re entering the realm of subjectivity here but I’ll explain what makes these such stand-out games. I found The Nameless Game at Steve Gaynor’s blog and must admit the pitch is fascinating. They basically took the idea of ‘The Ring’ and applied it to a video game. What if there was a haunted cartridge game and whoever played it would find themselves horribly cursed? I’m basing this purely off the two trailers and Gaynor’s observations, but little touches like the 8-bit game within a game being buggy and glitchy are just the tip of the iceberg. One of the themes in both trailers is the cross-over of games into reality. In the first trailer, you pick-up a DS. The trailer comes to an abrupt end there, the fourth wall being shattered as the person playing a game is now confronting that very fact. In the second, there is a transition from incessant 8-bit music to the humming of a real person in the same tune. It’s this transition of the virtual into the real that both horrifies and fascinates us that the game is capitalizing on. What if our entertainment, our escape, became real? Sure, the graphics look fine, there may be some pacing issues and the puzzles may be dull. But this is a game that no matter what flaws there may be, it is still a very interesting concept.


 


Another game that has several interesting things going to for it is Red Fly Studio’s Mushroom Men. A studio comprised almost entirely of artists, one look at the game will convince you that it’s totally unlike anything else aesthetically. It also explores the mostly uncharted landscape of being a tiny person in a 3-D human landscape. Levels include a trailer, shed, and the underground world of the mushroom people as they face off against everyday creatures like rabbits, spiders, and moles. Sounds good, right? Here’s the kicker: Les Claypool of Primus is making the soundtrack. It’s extremely unusual for the selling point of a video game to be its soundtrack and yet the time seems ripe for it to happen. An interview with game composer Richard Jacques outlines the culture of game soundtracks today. The once level-based themes that composers knew would be heard countless times have been replaced by long epic scores that support narrative and tension. Games are just now entering a phase where they are moving past that orchestral phase and are looking for new ways to incorporate music into games. It’s safe to say Les Claypool is your man for that kind of job. Again, no matter what problems this game may have, it’s trying to do something new and it’s doing it with a whole lot of style.


 


The first piece of hype I ever read was for the game Monkey Island. It was a sprawling six page spread, with screenshots that showed snippets from every part of the game. Fighting the swordmaster, digging for treasure, and Monkey Island itself were all featured and captioned. It completely fascinated me, this world they were describing and the experiences I would have there. My obsession with the game was rewarded heartily when I finally managed to play it some months later, but looking back I can still remember that hype article very clearly. I’d played a lot of interactive fiction games before and I’ve played a lot since, but I think what made it so special was that I’d never played anything that was about pirates in the Caribbean. With so much unexplored territory still left for video games, it seems like the best thing we can do now is support the people who are doing the real exploring.


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