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by L.B. Jeffries

5 May 2008

The establishment of a critical language eventually calls for laying out a couple of basic terms for describing experiences in games. At the moment, people mostly define a game by what kind of game design it is. ‘real-time strategy’, ‘first-person shooter’, or ‘role playing game’ dominate the lexicon of video games. The first problem is that these game designs have all borrowed from each other so much that now all games contain elements of them. Mass Effect has strategy and first-person shooting elements, the FPS gimmick of silent protagonists who never talk clearly flirts with role-play, etc. Second, they’re discussed as if they were exclusive activities. All aspects of a game involve strategy, a player operating in the first person (in varying ways), and the game’s camera changing location all the time. Finally, it tends to be reductive of the games themselves to group them by one feature alone should they excel in other ways. As video games start moving away from these initial identities the question arises…how do we start identifying the experience of a game?

Eric Wolpaw (the writer of Portal) has described a game as consisting of a delta of player input, plot, and game design that comes together to form the game experience. It’s a good analogy because just as when a triangle that has one large side forces the other two to conform, so too do games twist their attributes in response to one another. So in order to divide these different definitions, it’s best to just identify which part of the delta of narrative, player, or game is the foundation while the other two rest upon it. As far as the terminology goes, rather than re-invent the wheel it’s best to just rip it off something else: books. Out of all cultural forms of art, the act of imagining what people look, sound, and act like while reading somewhat resembles player input in video games. Besides, the narrative terms for how a book engages you (first-person, third, etc.) are already used in video games to describe their own methods of engagement anyways. FPS, remember?

by L.B. Jeffries

29 Apr 2008

Part of the reason this analytical method is named after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is to do justice to the individualized nature of player input, to put aside judging a game purely by the game play or plot and go beyond that to analyzing the actual experience of a game itself. The problem is…although critics are quite capable of analyzing their own experience from playing a game, it is not quite so easy to apply that analysis to others. Indeed, this critical method is more an approach to assessing the experience creating methods in a game rather than the individual experience itself. The player input, then, is literally your connection to the game because it keeps you interested and playing. To that end, when critically judging player input, you are looking at how the game and story react to your input and the impact this has on the overall experience. Rather than go into the huge variety of ways games do this, we’ll do an analysis of one of the more controversial player input methods that’s prevalent in games today and use it to highlight the requirements of player input itself.

There has been a great deal of criticism over the silent protagonist in video games recently and for good reason: they’re suddenly everywhere. Out of the top ranking games of 2007, almost all of them involve playing characters who don’t speak. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life never utters a word. Master Chief hardly speaks, and Link does little more than grunt. It’s tempting to dismiss the feature as simply a cop-out on the part of the creators, and yet there are certainly games that have used the device effectively. Why does the connection of not letting a player’s character speak work in some games and in others supposedly break-down?

by L.B. Jeffries

21 Apr 2008

Continuing with our outlining of the three variables of a video game (player input, plot, and game design), we next come to the question of how to assess the story in a game. Rather than indulge in the mass sea of back story and plots at surface value, let’s talk about what the story in a game actually is: stuff you have minimal control over. You can’t change the back story. You have a limited number of choices concerning the plot’s outcome. You generally don’t get to pick who you associate with. The story in a video game is where player input finds meaning, and yet it is the very thing you cannot affect.

At the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference, during Ken Levine’s lecture about plot in games, an audience member stood up and complained that they hadn’t wanted to kill Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. Disregarding the fact that killing Ryan was a brilliant commentary on extremist ideologies and questioning authority, it begs the greater question of whether or not this was even a problem. Bioshock would’ve been a much weaker game if it hadn’t been for that scene, and Ken Levine himself has admitted that after the third act the game’s story pretty much goes downhill. So given that the Andrew Ryan uncontrollable sequence was the best part of Bioshock in terms of the story, what are you supposed to say to someone who didn’t like it? At what point do you stop and say, “No, this is what you should be doing and if you don’t like it then stop playing”? What are the merits of forcing a player to do something in video games because that’s what the story says to do?

by L.B. Jeffries

14 Apr 2008

Operating on the principle that a game’s identity comes from the player input which itself is defined by both story and game design, the next stage of creating a critical method for video games is isolating those three variables. We’ll start with the most familiar to the medium of video games: the game design. Making an attempt at objectivity, we’ll examine the subject by looking at games with very shallow game design and ones with very complex design. What is the result of either? Steve Gaynor, in his blog, notes that a lot of people just don’t have the time to learn how to play a game and be competitive. Keep in mind that that’s not just referring to online play, it can be as simple as the player being unable to actually finish a game without a lot of work. At the same time, complex design can instill both a sense of achievement and allow for greater depth of player input. A game with deep design will allow a player to customize their own approach and make the game experience an individual one.

To begin, what are the benefits of having a complex, deep game design?

by L.B. Jeffries

7 Apr 2008

As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole. Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You’d need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn’t going to capture the essence of the play (but it’d be awesome if someone tried). A game’s identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.

So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?

//Mixed media

The Specter of Multiplayer Hangs Over 'Door Kickers'

// Moving Pixels

"Door Kickers is not a multiplayer game, but for a while there, I couldn’t tell the difference.

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