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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008
A new flash game pushes the boundaries of taste and forces the player to confront the overt sexuality in some games.

Editor’s Note: The portion of this blog post located after the jump is distinctly NSFW. 


I found this game thanks to Play This Thing, a superb website for all things indie.


Popping the psychological hood open on any artistic creation can garner a mixed reaction from people. Whereas some gain a deeper understanding of a work by seeing the sexual and mental impulses going on, others prefer it on a less complex level. This is particularly true in video games because the player input allows for the player to invest much more of themselves into the experience. Whereas anyone debating the phallic nature of light sabers is eventually going to have to shrug and roll their eyes, video games don’t quite allow for the same degree of neutrality. That’s because you, the player, are complicit in the action of the game. You are acting out the metaphor. When someone points out that using a gigantic sword to kill the Final Boss (with an equally large sword) has sexual overtones to it, they are implying that somehow something subconscious or sexual was going on in your mind at the time. That’s a distinct cross-over from the realm of “The artist is saying something sexual to me” and into the less secure world of “I just did something overtly sexual”. This does not, needless to say, necessarily go over well with some people.


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Friday, Aug 15, 2008
A look at Kevan Davis' quietly groundbreaking grid and text-based sandbox MMORPG.

Just before Christmas 2006, I heard about a new(ish) online game played in real time.  In it, you create a character, gain experience to level up and buy skills, and engage in combat with other player characters.  The game lacks NPCs, so every interaction takes place between two real people.  The action takes place in Malton, a ruined, quarantined city after a zombie apocalypse, and players may take the role of either survivors or the undead.  Best of all, the game is browser-based and free to play.  So what’s the catch?  Widespread narcolepsy, apparently. 


The game I’ve described, Urban Dead, is grid-based, and each movement on the map, use of an item, or search conducted uses one action point.  These action points are rationed to about fifty per day—they replenish at a rate of one per half hour, give or take.  When your action points are used up, you fall asleep.  In an abandoned bar, in the street, wherever—you just pass out.  I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water in Malton, but it sure as heck isn’t caffeine. 


The rationing of action points is not an entirely new system—Kingdom of Loathing has been running a similar system since 2003—but unlike life in the Kingdom, which mainly pits player characters against NPCs, running out of action points in Urban Dead can cause your survivor character to be dismembered and devoured by undead minions hungry for the bloody flavor of harman hambargars (that’s zombish for human hamburgers), or your zombie might end up getting a fire axe to the back of the skull and staying down for the count (requiring ten additional action points to stand up after a head shot). 


Urban Dead has its own mythology, much of which is documented in its dedicated wiki, and which includes the ability of certain individuals with the requisite training to revive those who have been infected with the strange zombie virus and restore the undead to the, ahem, sunny side of life.  This has created a number of conventions invented from whole cloth by the players on both sides of the grave, which in many ways is more interesting than the game itself.  For instance, those who prefer to play as survivors and log in to find that they have been chewed on during the night can move their shambling corpses to one of several dozen designated revive points—usually cemeteries—and stand in a queue to be brought back to life.  There are players who devote their entire daily ration of action points to reviving their fallen comrades, and who may never actually fight zombies at all. 


Then there are those who play as survivors, but instead of helping their fellow humans fight the zombie hordes, they load up on shotguns and rampage around shopping malls, capping innocent bystanders and generally spreading chaos.  To combat these “player killers,” an unofficial character class has evolved, and bounty hunters seek out and kill the player killers.  Of course, death is a temporary state in Malton, so the circle of life and undeath ebbs and flows like a bloody river flowing to an eternal sea.


Most fascinating, however, are the groups that have repurposed the mechanics of Urban Dead to play a game so completely their own such that it resonates both in-game and out.  Take, for instance, The Shamblin’ Crooners.  This is a group of zombie players that travel from venue to venue performing for human audiences.  In-game, zombies with sufficient experience can buy skills that allow them a rudimentary form of speech (using only the letters a, b, g, h, m, n, r, and z) and something called “Flailing Gesture,” which unlocks the option to point north, south, west, east, or at nearby people or objects.  The Shamblin’ Crooners combined these skills to choreograph elaborate song-and-dance numbers, to be executed just before all the survivors in the chosen venue are, well, executed.  The result: a bunch of dead players who are pretty amused by the whole thing, really, when it gets right down to it. 


I could go on. There are zombie lexicographers, who tirelessly catalog the constantly evolving slang that is zombie speech (survivors with guns: bangbang manz).  There are keen hackers who forge slick apps to make the user interface prettier, tidier, or more accessible.  There is a group called Upper Left Corner, which gathers in the titular corners of malls (which occupy four grid squares) and consume themselves with small talk and witty banter—zombie apocalypse be damned. 


Urban Dead has inspired a few spin-offs since its inception in July 2005, and its creator, Kevan Davis, has been supportive of games like Nexus War.  In my experiences with these games, however, the relaxation of various limitations—responses to common complaints about Urban Dead‘s restrictive gameplay—renders them too simple and drops the stakes to an unsatisfying low.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, it’s rather like playing tennis with the net down.  The limited capabilities of Urban Dead characters inspire creativity and resourcefulness in its players, and therein lies its real magic.  Instead of creating a story and inviting the players to watch it unfold, Davis has succeeded in crafting a sandbox and letting the players create their own world inside it.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008
This is a write-up about an extremely short (1-2 minutes) experiment game called Execution. The experiment will not have much effect if you read the write-up before trying it yourself.

I found this game via Brenda Brathwaite at her blog Applied Game Design and it proposes an interesting take on how to generate moral dilemmas in games. One of the major dilemmas with pushing games into more complex experiences and art forms is that games don’t necessarily generate any kind of consequences. Unlike shooting someone in real life, which leads to both moral and literal consequences, in a video game it either doesn’t matter or can be undone. If I accidentally say something awful to someone in Mass Effect and we get into a fight, I can just load my game. Few people are going to allow something like making a mistake impair their enjoyment of a game experience. They want the best items, the ‘best’ ending, and for things to generally work in their favor. So even games that do feature choices just inevitably devolve into asking someone to make a choice and then letting them keep answering until they get the right response.


There are two solutions in games to this problem. You can make the plot entirely linear, in which case the player isn’t responsible for the consequences anyways. Or you can make either choice a valid one. Although that’s an interesting solution for a morally grey scenario, it becomes problematic when we get back to the fight in Mass Effect. Sometimes what the player did was wrong, there are serious consequences to such actions, and they should be punished for them. And the only real way to do that is to take away the save game feature.


As the commenters at Brathwaite’s blog note, part of what makes the player reaction so interesting is how much they dislike the decision forced on them. Either quit the game or shoot the victim. You know shooting is bad, the game clearly warns you that there will be consequences, and then it forces them by making the little man be dead even after you restart the game. Some players just re-installed the game and made the “correct” choice and others denounced the entire process. Despite the wisdom of ‘War Games’, most people aren’t really inclined to consider quitting the game a valid choice.


This isn’t the first time a game has attempted the “Quit or Do the Wrong Thing” game design. The brilliant Immortal Defense offers a similar dilemma towards the final levels and tends to produce the same mixed-results from the player. Would it be better if the game gave me two wrong choices? Would it be better if I made the wrong choice but later on I was able to redeem myself? Whatever the game design people come up with to create consequences and morality, the greater issue almost seems to be directed at the players themselves. If we are prepared to allow a game to teach us a moral, what kind of game designs are we going to have to accept that create the consequences needed for such a lesson?


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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
A new (and free) arena shooter grabs our attention...

Even in the short time that this blog has been active, it’s become obvious that I have…well, I’ll call it a weakness for the genre that has come to be known as the “arena shooter” (others might call it a crippling addiction.  Tomayto, tomahto).  Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most recent variation on the object of my constant affection, a little slice of freeware heaven with the impenetrable name of Debrysis.


It’s a mouse-‘n-cursor-keys experience, not unlike Geometry Wars or Everyday Shooter, that makes its presence matter via pure style.  There’s something appealing, in a utilitarian sort of way, about the rotating gear/buzzsaw-like pattern that surrounds the play area, the glowing light patterns that are the enemies, and the rhythmic sort of way that certain weapons take out those enemies.  The game flows with a sort of grace and ever-increasing intensity the likes of which I haven’t seen since Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and the muted color scheme is incredibly easy on the eyes.  There are local high score sheets and online leaderboards to facilitate competition, and it’s simply an incredibly addicting experience.


There’s actually only one blemish on the beauty of Debrysis, that being the avatar and the health bar of that avatar.  The player plays as this little, blocky moon car with a turret on top of it, which simply doesn’t fit in amongst the almost surreal beauty of its surroundings.  Not only that, but the little moon car’s health is represented by little blocks that hover around on top of the moon car, moving with the player as the destruction is happening all around.


The effect, then, is that of the destruction of the beautiful by the ugly, which could potentially be an interesting societal metaphor, though I’m not convinced that such a metaphor was the intent of the designers. 


Despite the unease that said metaphor can introduce into the player’s mind while the game progresses, one can’t help but play the thing over and over again, simply because it’s a new way to achieve that little bit of hypnosis that the best arena shooters can inspire.  It’s a game whose sheen is on the level of games that people, y’know, pay for, and the control is as sharp and responsive as it should be for a game like this.  It’s nothing new, and its audience is probably limited to a certain niche that I happen to belong to.  Still, it’s free, so the least you can do is give it a try.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
Jason Rohrer's at it again, with a fascinating little game that has a lot more to say than its primitive layout would imply.

What can we learn from Idealism?  For one, there’s more to Jason Rohrer than Passage, and there’s more to The Escapist than Zero Punctuation.


Of course, a lot of folks already know this; The Escapist has quickly become a hotspot for intelligent commentary on the gaming medium, and this is actually Rohrer’s second project for the magazine after the mindbuster that was Perfectionism.  Rohrer has taken up residence at The Escapist, it seems, and both Perfectionism and Idealism can be found there.


Idealism is a fascinating little game, especially when put next to Perfectionism.  For one, both were created in Game Maker, a framework and scripting language for game creation (to seriously oversimplify its capabilities), which may partially account for the similarities in presentation.  Both games are presented on a solid black background, using simple shapes and sprites evoking the graphics of the Atari 2600, and both games start out as incredibly simple exercises in button-pushing and turn into head-scratching mindbenders as they progress.  They are both decidedly brief experiences, but both can be returned to and approached in a variety of ways.


What Rohrer likes to do, however, is infuse his games with some sort of symbolic value, and this is where the contrast between Perfectionism and Idealism starts to take shape.  Where Perfectionism was largely motivated by introspection—namely, Rohrer’s need to go over and over and over his work until it’s exactly the way he wants it—Idealism seems motivated by an observation on the industry.  As Rohrer himself puts it in his own explanation of the game, “What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals?”  It’s the classic design conundrum, and it happens in games, in music, in art, and in literature, popularly known as the sell out.  How far can an idealistic worldview take you in your outlet of choice, and what would it take for you to compromise those ideals?


The way that Rohrer goes about exploring these ideals is fascinating.  The primitive means used to force the player into making these decisions is perfect, as the presentation never distracts from the issues at hand.  Without wanting to give too much away, Rohrer has encapsulated his moral quandary in a shooter that can move as quickly or as slowly as the user wants.  The decision to “sell out” can be a quick, split-second decision, or it can be a calculated, strategic move. 


What I wonder, however, is what point Rohrer is trying to make when he ramps up the difficulty so far at one point as to make the game nearly unplayable.  Perhaps he’s making the point of how meaningless the choice ultimately is; perhaps he just likes the number 23.  If anyone out there in game land can get through the point I’m talking about here (and you will know it when you see it), I hope you leave a comment and tell me what happens.


So?  What are you waiting for?  It’s free!  And it’ll probably run on your old 486 (don’t quote me on that).  Go and give it a look.


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