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Tuesday, Jul 6, 2010
You can describe the characteristics of play and you can define qualities of something that is not play, but it’s always going to be a loose concept.

Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture traces the method by which various cultures develop the notion of play and how play can be seen in almost every facet of civilization. War, religion, politics, sports, and even the arts contain elements of play that drive their production. He is convincing enough in this argument that when he gets to the point where he must establish when something ceases to be play, the answer is more about faith than fact.


There are a variety of scientific and anthropological explanations for play. A child at play is imitating adults, and the reason we engage in sport is to release excess energy. Huizinga points out that the common characteristic of anyone explaining play is that “play must serve something which is not play” (2). Play is an element that merges with something else. Linguistically the word “play” varies drastically from culture to culture. In ancient German, the word for play is an abstract concept that could reference a drinking competition or deciding how to kill someone. In English, i more clearly indicates the exclusion of “seriousness”. In other cultures, the word can be a reference for sexual conduct or a way of expressing laziness (40). Huizinga writes, “All peoples play, and play remarkably alike; but their languages differ widely in their conception of play, conceiving it neither as distinctly nor as broadly as modern European languages do” (28).


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Tuesday, Jun 29, 2010
Destroying the very sensation that seems to be appealing about these games is an intrinsic part of the experience.

The notion of coordinating music in block games has been around since the NES version of Tetris. Multiple tracks could be selected from the start, and the beat would speed up as you progressed in the game. Even the original Dr. Mario still has one of the catchiest 8-bit tunes ever produced. Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Lumines changes these features into a core element of the game design by having multiple tracks commissioned from various artists that are coordinated with the visuals. Like his work in Rez HD, each level produces unique sounds for block formation, which coordinates with the background music. What’s impressive about the game is the way that its shifting visuals and music become a part of the complexity in a game that on the surface seems like just another block matching game.


There’s a great article by Ian Bogost over at Gamasutra that illustrates the difficulty in explaining why one block matching game is superior to another, “The truth is, it’s hard to perform thoughtful criticism on puzzles, because they don’t carry meaning in the way novels or films or oil paintings do” (“Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime”, Gamasutra, 23 December 2009). The post contrasts Janet Murray’s interpretation of Tetris as analogous to overworked office culture to Markku Eskelinen’s analysis of the game as a formal system of rules and abstractions. What is the middle ground between the abstract and the formal when analyzing a game with no plot? Bogost contends, “The problem with the Murray/Eskelinen approach to abstract puzzle games is that one wants the game to function only narratively, the other wants it to function only formally. Neither is exactly right without the other. The problem seems to be this: the ‘meaning’ of an abstract puzzle game lies in a gap between its mechanics and its dynamics, rather than in one or the other.” Using Immanuel Kant’s two types of sublimity, the mathematical (sense of vastness) and the dynamic (sense of being overwhelmed), he argues that a puzzle game’s ability to induce these sensations in us is a far better gauge of their quality than something like ‘addiction’ or ‘pretty content’.


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Tuesday, Jun 22, 2010
Bill Murray's Groundhog Day is like Bioware RPGs. When the plot is over, all you can do is go back to the start. If you die, you get sent back to a different part to try again.

Video games face a lot of interesting problems whenever they want to tell a coherent story. You need an enemy that does not create any moral dilemmas if you slaughter them wholesale. The main character has to be dramatically important to the point of ludicrous. They also need to have a blank enough personality that the average person can project onto them. Even the touchstones of game narrative have convoluted plot holes. Bioshock stops making sense after the third act depending on your choices. Uncharted 2 might be remarkable for having good writing and acting but there is still a drastic difference between Nathan Drake the character and Nathan Drake the person slaughtering hundreds of soldiers. Even these games ignore fundamental elements of gameplay like loading your saved game, artificial interactions, or the natural emotional distance that all players have from the consequences of their conduct. It’s funny then that there is already a movie which has tackled most of these issues by presenting a protagonist who is stuck in a time loop.


Groundhog Day is a remarkably pliant work of art. Bill Murray (Phil Connors) is stuck repeating February 2nd in a small town in Pennsylvania. There’s no explanation for it, he just wakes up over and over to the same events constantly. An article over at suite101.com points out numerous religious interpretations of the film (Kerri Carpenter, Groundhog Day: A Classic Comedy With A Moral Legacy”, suite101.com, 27 Jan 2010). Catholics see it as a parable for Purgatory, Buddhists identify with the themes of self-reflection that Murray’s character experiences because he can never change the world due to the time loop. Life always resets, and no one has any memory of the things Murray did except him. Mario Sesti points out that the film’s character arc is seeing Murray’s changing relationship with this situation (Groundhog Day The Movie: Buddhism and Me”, P.S. A Column on Things, 20 Jun 2008). Murray is stuck in the time loop long enough to learn fluent French, the piano, memorize every person in town, every event experienced in the day, and every reaction to his conduct. Sesti comments, “[Murray] becomes increasingly less the hostage of his small-town world and more its creator.”


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Tuesday, Jun 15, 2010
You can’t just tell a player to care about someone because they’re your friend or it will save the world. Spoilers abound.

Of all the things that Indigo Prophecy represents in its contribution to video games, consistency is not one of them. A bold and clever experiment at times, the game’s heavily authored narrative fails to sustain its coherence after one plot twist and bizarre character interaction too many. Yet there are still a lot of interesting moments in the game worth focusing on, including the moment where the game becomes a train wreck.


The game design is basically a subjective adventure game interface with random mini-games. The chief limitation to your actions is what the designer will allow you to do or touch, there is no real agency outside of this conceptual space. Discovering what you can interact with means walking around the room until the options light up. What’s interesting is the game’s willingness to let these normally limited interactions include the mundane. For each character, you can walk around their apartment, fix a drink, play guitar, watch TV, or a variety of other tasks. The fridge and cabinets are all operable along with the bathroom. Iroquis Pliskin points out that these moments, “succeed in communicating this idea that your protagonist is a regular human being who’s trying to cope with the bizarre events that just transpired. It’s the most successful sequence in the entire game” (“In Praise of the Mundane”, Versus Clu Clu Land, 12 February 2009).


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Tuesday, Jun 8, 2010
"I think a site where it's just a raptor trying to eat Octomom would be boring. With Michael Buble, you don't really know what the raptor wants or why he wants it."

Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to mean an idea that is spread by writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. The most common example of this is a joke like the LOLcatz speaking in baby language, but with the advent of YouTube and photoshopping, the practice has continued to expand into ever more bizarre territory. You can find a great collection of the biggest ones on the web here. The formula and means of broadcasting memes has continued to develop to the point that now there are even blogs devoted to single memes. What’s interesting about them is how they have begun to incorporate game elements as a way to keep people engaged. The most obvious example would be the Rick Roll, where you trick someone into clicking on a link that promises something too good to be true. It’s a game in the most basic sense and probably more fun for the person posting than the one being tricked, but other memes have adopted game elements with great results. Michael Buble Being Stalked by a Velociraptor borrows a cue from the hidden object game by taking a photo of Michael Buble and hiding a velociraptor somewhere in it.


In an e-mail interview with creator Mike Lacher, who posts his work at Wonder Tonic, Lacher explains how he got the idea, “For some reason Michael Buble struck me as a funny thing, I think because he’s a fairly major celebrity, but he exists entirely outside the usual sphere of frequently-lampooned or satirized pop stars. When I started doing a few searches, I noticed his publicity photographs were pretty hilarious. All his photos show him lonely and brooding. He’s all alone in cars, phone booths, dressing rooms, and diners. Since the photos are engineered to project this loneliness, I thought it would be funny to have someone/something else there. I guess a velociraptor struck me as the thing least likely to be found in an empty diner at dawn with a Canadian crooner.” The combination of a raptor and the curious celebrity status of Buble are what drives the appeal of the blog because there is a weird amount of abstraction to the exchange. Lacher notes, “There’s definitely some draw from the meme-ness of veclociraptors (Raptor Jesus and XKCD and such) and public bemusement/irritation toward Buble, but I think the chief enjoyment people get is from the randomness. Many of the initial reactions people had when the site was getting tweeted a whole bunch was “this is the next Selleck Waterfall Sandwich” and “another hilarious random tumblr.”


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