Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 14, 2010
It doesn’t matter what you try to force a space into being, people will define that space themselves in connection to other parts. A game designer never truly plays their own game.

Bernard Tschumi’s Architecture and Disjunction is a collection of his essays on post-structuralism. Overall, they engage with the idea of applying Derrida’s theories about how people interact with meaning in art to architecture and space. If you need a basic rundown on some ways that architecture and video games relate to one another, you can check out my column on the subject. This is a bit more complicated and explores how interaction creates or destroys meaning in a virtual space. I’ve done my best to make this accessible to someone with no background (or interest) in these fields, but it only works for so long.


The first thing that you need to know is that anytime you see the word “post” next to a term for an artistic movement, it means that they’re talking about the artistic reaction to that movement. So, structuralism is a movement that roughly started with Kenzo Tange in 1960 when he was designing the new Tokyo Bay. It was an abandoning of functionalism, or the idea of making a building super-efficient, and instead organizing it around how people engage with one another. Video game design is extremely structuralist in this sense, all spaces are built around playtesting and studying how people respond to them. Changes are made to change the space to fit a designer’s vision for what people should be doing in that area. Post-structuralism, as a branch of post-modernism, is the idea that the meaning of a place comes from events and spaces relationships to other parts of a whole. Meaning is not controlled by any one specific design, person, or action but rather by all of these things working together. Keep in mind that post-modernism in architecture is not the same thing as post-modernism in the arts. To an artist, it means a critical practice. To an architect, it is a visual aesthetic (17).


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Tuesday, Sep 7, 2010
What benefit is there to having terminal consequences in an adventure game? Adventure games always succumb to the issue of having an interface where you can theoretically do anything and having it confined to a space where you can only do what the designer allows.

A common assumption about adventure games is the inherent superiority of the Lucasarts design method to the Sierra approach. In a Lucasarts game, you can never die (with a few exceptions) and can always backtrack to get whatever item you need. In a Sierra game, bizarre crap kills you all the time, and sometimes you can’t backtrack to get a key item. This means starting over or going back to an old save. The assumption is that backtracking automatically makes the Sierra approach inferior. This argument is a bit unfair because it presumes that all adventure games are meant to do is tell a coherent story. Ron Gilbert (Lead Designer for Monkey Island 1 & 2) explains in a blog post why death and getting stuck are terrible for story oriented games, “As the story builds, we are pulled into the game and leave the real world behind.  As designers, our job is to keep people in this state for as long as possible.  Every time the player has to restore a saved game, or pound his head on the desk in frustration, the suspension of disbelief is gone.  At this time he is most likely to shut off the computer and go watch TV, at which point we all have lost” (“Why Adventure Games Suck”, Grumpy Gamer, 22 May 2004).


The issue is that Sierra games aren’t always concerned with telling a complex story, sometimes their games are just a collection of puzzles scattered around a fairy tale landscape. Most of the plots in the early titles are explained from the very beginning. In King’s Quest IV, the fairy queen explains that the magic fruit that you need is located to the East. In Space Quest 2, you’re there to stop Vohaul from unleashing his Insurance Agent Robots. In Leisure Suit Larry, you’re told to find love or the closest thing to it. You find a lot of the closest thing to it. You solve a lot of puzzles along the way, but that’s pretty much how each game ends. There is no character development or even significant supporting characters. These games are just a laundry list of side characters and references to various myths, television shows, movies, or other original material. From this perspective, death is not really an impediment to story because such stories are just archetypal. The puzzles are the heart of the experience.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010
For as often as I died while playing N+, maybe the best compliment that I can pay it is that I didn’t mind a single time.

N+, like its free to play flash predecessor N, is a simple but elegant platformer. The purpose of the game is to get to the exit while collecting as much gold in the room as you like. Obstacles include mines, laser turrets, and heat seeking missiles which make escape more complicated. The ninja is a good abstract avatar that anyone can project on to, and all of your abilities will be familiar to anyone who has played a 2-D platformer. What’s impressive about the game is how much playtime it extracts, given that it is a game in which all you can really do is jump. It instead relies on only a handful of obstacles and shifting goals to make a game that you always want to play just one more time. For the purposes of this post, I played N+ on the DS, which unfortunately means I’m just discussing the levels included with the game in single player mode. They took the servers down a while back for DS owners.


The game is fast paced and you can easily die a dozen times per level. Difficulty is a uniquely layered system because the game challenges you in three ways. The first is the challenge that evry player must complete: get to the exit. The second is for OCD players who want to collect every gold piece on the level. The third is the clock, which keeps tabs on how quickly you can beat the level and will kill you if it runs out. Off the top of my head, I’d say the first 30 levels (there are 156 by my count) were easy in terms of completing all three goals. The next 30 made collecting all of the gold pieces a bit trickier. After 30 or so levels like that, getting to the exit is tougher. The final levels eventually introduce the clock itself as a barrier.  These are levels in which you are hauling ass just to open a gate and get out. After extended play, you can usually spot which of the three challenges that a level is focusing on trying to engage you with. For example, maybe the exit will only require a little careful footwork and hiding behind cover, but the gold is right next to the laser turrets. Or the gold is generally all along your path to the exit, but there are dozens of robots blocking the exit. Or you just have one minute to win. The more challenging levels can take a lot of practice to beat because often you have to figure out the precise sequence of jumps and wall slides needed to win. It’s not unheard of to practice the tougher levels for an hour or two individually before beating them.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 24, 2010
The general traits of a video game parodying another video game are simplification of both content and design to show how inane the bare bones interaction of that game really is.

Video games have often been used to parody or satirize social conventions. Whether it’s something as simple as recreating a shoe being thrown at George Bush or a satirical representation of how to operate a Fast Food chain, these games use the power of interaction to make their commentary more tangible. People have been making up games and playing this way for centuries. An excellent book by Mary Flanagan, Critical Play, explores the history of this practice and outlines several criteria for assessing games that are critically engaging an aspect of society. She writes, “Critical play means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life . . . Criticality in play can be fostered in order to question an aspect of a game’s “content,” or an aspect of a play scenario’s function that might otherwise be considered a given or necessary” (6).


Something like the McDonald’s Game (cited above) is a good example of both content criticism and a questionable system. It takes a business sim and uses that system to outline the corruption of a corporation. The only way to “win” the game is to be corrupt, and all of the content uses modern examples and recognizable parodies to do so. That’s a unique example though, most games are either criticizing the content placed in their system or criticizing the system itself by inducing absurd behavior. Flanagan goes on to explain critical play through one of the original forms of critical play via doll houses, “The enactment of critical play exhibits at least three kinds of action: unplaying, re-dressing or reskinning, and rewriting” (32). “Unplaying” is acting out forbidden scenes with the doll. “Re-dressing” is changing the doll’s appearance or items for darker play, like making funeral items and caskets. “Rewriting” is fan fiction and the proliferation of people writing stories about the doll funerals.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010
Escape From Butcher Bay is a simple story with simple mechanics, but it works with what it has elegantly.

Starbreeze’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is one of the most competently organized and coherent games ever made. While nothing particularly dramatic or life changing will happen while playing, like Star Wars: Republic Commando it sticks with the basics and hits all the right notes. There are numerous things that the average action game screws up that Butcher Bay gets right. The setting makes sense with the way that the levels are setup. The game effectively makes you feel like you’re in prison through small details and interactions. While I don’t expect Butcher Bay to radically change the way that people think about games, I think it solidly establishes the bare minimum of what a “good” plot driven game is supposed to do.


The plot is divided into three coherent segments that are matched with proper variation in design to mirror what’s going on. Each segment is basically the same conceptually but varies in length. Riddick is placed in a low security portion of the prison where he talks with prisoners and sneaks around. After mucking about for a bit, you eventually establish a way to escape. The game then switches from stealth and dialogue to action as you tear the place apart while making your exit. Something goes wrong, you get caught, and you get dumped in another part of the prison. It holds together thematically because despite the fact that you will meet dozens of characters there is still only one overarching goal: escape from Butcher Bay. This leaves room for the dialogue to establish character instead of constantly explaining why this person is bad or why the player should care. All missions and side-missions build towards escaping, so you don’t have to worry about what the player is thinking. As Mitch Krpata puts it, “You always understand what your character is doing, and why. Riddick has to accomplish fetch missions, but they’re not burdened with a bunch of useless filler” (“The Chronic-what-cles of Riddick”, Insult Swordfighting, 29 April 2009).


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