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

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Friday, Sep 18, 2009
Trials HD is a brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.

Last week I wrote that the perceived difficulty of a game is less affected by the individual challenges that make up said game than it is the ramp-up in difficulty and other elements surrounding those individual challenges. Essentially, punishing games can be fun. For all the negative connotations of the word, it more describes a very demanding style of gameplay than a level of difficulty. Punishing the player while keeping him entertained is a tough balancing act, but Trials HD strikes that balance: A brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.

Trials HD is part puzzler and part racer. Set on a 2D plane, the player rides a motorcycle through an obstacle course, racing against the clock. The earlier courses focus more on speed and timing, while the later courses present the player with insane obstacles that require some creative thinking in order to pass. Every course demands practice and patience. For example: A beginner’s course is just filled with ramps, but simply holding down the gas will not get you a gold metal. Counter to many arcade-style racers, which Trials HD seems to be at first, you must learn when to slow down in order to gain momentum.

Forgiving Checkpoints

There are many, many, checkpoints in each course, nearly one after every obstacle. If you go off a ramp, you can bet there’s a checkpoint on the other side. This ensures that the only challenge players are ever concerned with is the one directly in front of them. It’s always frustrating, in any game, when we fail a challenge and must then replay the build-up to that challenge; having to slog through that same build-up over and over again turns playing the game into actual punishment, as in an unwanted consequence for failure. Trails HD realizes this and never forces the player to replay large sections of a level. Once an obstacle is overcome, it can be forgotten, and the player can focus all his attention on what’s next.

Retrying Is Easy

There’s also a “quick-load” feature that allows players to reload from the last checkpoint with the press of a button. If you miss a jump or go off at the wrong angle, you don’t have to wait to crash before you get the option to retry. You can just press a button to get back on the bike immediately. Having to watch the same death/failure scene over and over is annoying, especially when the death/failure scene lasts longer than the actual time spent playing. Trials HD makes it as easy as possible to retry after failing.


Variety is important in warding off potential frustration, and Trials HD has a surprising amount of variety considering how everything in the game revolves around motorcycles and obstacles. The main game is split into five levels of difficulty ranging from Beginner to Extreme. Naturally, as the player completes the courses in one difficulty level, they unlock the next, but players don’t have to finish every course in order to advance, just a majority of them. So if one level proves to be too hard, we can skip it and still be able to advance. There’s never a single obstacle preventing the player from progressing.

Then there are the Skill Games, a collection of seemingly random mini-games that offer the player a break from the main mode. They range from seeing how long you can stay balanced on top of or inside a ball, to how far you can ride up an ever-steepening slope. Some of the skill games (like the one in which you try to break as many bones as possible in a single fall, or the one where you try to fling the rider as far as possible) provide a cathartic release of any anger garnered in the main game. But for all their fun, they also teach the player valuable skills necessary to pass some of the later courses, such as balance, keeping momentum, and (especially) climbing. So even as we take a break from the main courses, the game is helping and preparing us for more.

Trials HD panders to the player in every way except lowing the difficulty. While playing other punishing games, it can sometimes feel like the game is giving itself an unfair advantage in order to up the difficulty, which can anger players and convince them to quit. But in Trials HD, it feels like the game is helping us, urging us on despite its merciless courses. We’re not actually competing against the game; the courses serve as an arena in which we compete against ourselves and our friends for the best time. The game does urge us on by offering medals, but sometimes it’s satisfying enough just to be at the top of you Friends List, even if you only have a silver medal. Competing in such passive, inanimate courses means that any mistake is clearly our fault. If we can’t get up a steep ramp, it’s not because the game is steadily increasing the incline, it’s because we’re not hitting the gas at the right time. The only person we can ever fault is ourselves. That’s what makes Trails HD punishing in all the right ways.

Tagged as: trials hd
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Thursday, Sep 17, 2009
An indie project to help raise awareness of the history and background of the Iran Riots.


As the difficult economic times and profit margins continue to force AAA to appeal to the broadest audience possible, it is becoming increasingly likely that the indie scene will be the place where games will address contemporary issues. Unfortunately, funding these ventures is still going to be difficult. Jonathon Blow received help from various sources to help get Braid off the ground, with much of the game’s expense coming from paying for the art assets. Jason Rohrer was able to create his work thanks to similar aid. The more eccentric a game wants to be, the less money people are potentially going to be willing to spend on it and thus the less likely investors will back it. Fortunately, art patronage in games is now more possible than ever thanks to websites like Kickstarter. Rather than try to have one group of investors bear the risk of a large investment, a game can be funded by numerous small donors who are promised copies of the game and other perks.

One such game that has begun to garner attention is Borut Pfeifer’s The Unconcerned. He writes, “The game is set in Tehran, Iran, during the post-election riots that took place this summer. You play a father and mother looking for their lost daughter, amidst crowds of protesters and police. It’s a puzzle/action game, set from a 3/4 overhead perspective in 2D.” You play as both the mother and father, interacting with Iranians, and discovering details about the event as you progress through the game. Playing as a woman will force the player to navigate the repression women experience in Iran while playing as the father comes with its own complications. Pfeifer explains, “I have over 9 years experience making games, and have an extensive network of friends and colleagues that can help me find the other resources I need to finish the game with the funding provided through Kickstarter.”

Games can and should provide players with a way to engage with modern issues in a manner that lets them learn about these issues through play. As a growing medium with a thriving indie movement, efforts like these can make the strengths of the medium shine. 10 dollars buys you a pre-copy of the game, 25 gets a signed copy, and so on until 1,000 earns you a spot as an Executive Producer. The game could potentially end up on PC/Xbox Arcade/PSN and other gaming networks.

You can find the donation site here.

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Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009
I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.

Some of us old gaming fogeys sometimes like to gripe and groan about the current state of the game manual.  Video games for the most part now come with these flimsy little pamphlets that they call a “manual” that might contain a schematic of your controller that indicates what the buttons do and not much else.  Of course, “back in our day”, floppy disks came packed in a mammoth sized box with a bunch of nifty extras like maps of the game world alongside a 300-page manual that described not only how to play your game from load screen to the penultimate moments of gameplay but probably the entire history of the Roman Empire that would serve as a little flavor for the game that you were about to undertake.

As unwieldy as these tomes were, they often did add that bit of flavor to the proceedings, and they were ultimately necessary components to gaming since most games really provided no in-game tutorial of any sort to guide the player in learning the game.  Consider the horrifying implications in 1985 of Hacker‘s claim that a screen reading “‘LOGON PLEASE’: is all you get to start with.”  A game that gave you nothing to read to get started with?  That might ask you to learn the game by playing around with it?

Of course, “playing around with it” is largely the pedagogy of contemporary games albeit in a guided manner as opposed to the pure “sink or swim” approach of Hacker.  Rather than having to guess at how to control a game character or mash some buttons to see what they might be capable of doing, most games have some sort of tutorial, usually built right into the opening segments of the storyline, that instructs you on how to move around, open a door, or throw a punch.  In addition to telling you how to do it, the game also asks you to “play around” with these controls.  Not only do you learn that you need to “Press A to jump,” but you are instructed to do so yourself after reading or hearing that instruction, a good example of active learning. As Wikipedia notes, this pedagogy popularized by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison in their 1991 book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom can be basically boiled down to the concept that “practice after initial learning” is a good way to reinforce a new skill.  The dominant notion in this pedagogy is that pure exposition is generally an insufficient way to acquire new knowledge and that active reinforcements of knowledge benefit those trying to learn new information or how to do something new.

I was reminded of the more traditional expository method of conveying information that game manuals used to provide gamers a few weeks ago when I tried booting up a copy of the World War II simulation, Hearts of Iron 3.  Not only is Hearts of Iron 3 a game that is built in a retro style with pared down visuals of maps and charts rather than fancy battlefield graphics, but it depends on a retro style of tutorial.  While an in-game tutorial exists for this political and military sim, the tutorial is presented as a series of lengthy texts overlaid over the user interface that explain how to build troops, a national economy, participate in diplomatic efforts, etc.  Because of the World War II setting and the fact that you are going to take on the role of a singular authority over a nation, the text is “spiced up” with a kind of narrative component that suggests that Hitler himself is narrating these instructions to the player who will soon be taking on the role of dictator.  While the game attempts to inject humor into what is otherwise a fairly didactic description of gameplay, the “humor” is more groan inducing than funny and also serves to distract from what is a labyrinthine set of rules, guidelines, and symbols that make up the game. 

Since this is all expository, and there are a whole lot of rules to learn, the “tutorial” of Hearts of Iron 3 becomes an exercise in sophistry as the game lectures you on how to perform diplomacy, espionage, and combat in slide after slide of words that vaguely relate to the graphs and charts of the game that you are looking at.  It tells you how to play but doesn’t at this point allow you to get your hands dirty in any of it.  All in all, it takes about ten or twenty minutes to read and scratch your head about the relationship between what you are reading and the UI that you are looking at.  By the time that I was done, I had managed to forget every single thing that I had just read and felt utterly clueless about how to play the game.  I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.

While my response to Hearts of Iron 3‘s pedantic approach might imply that us old fogeys should shut the hell up and join the rest of the world in the 21st century where games teach the player through the more effective pedagogy of active learning, one might consider that the value of active learning has been challenged as well.  For example in a 2006 study, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”, Paul A. Kirschner reviewed the shortfalls of a number of efforts to put active learning to work in practical settings.  While not all of Kirschner’s criticisms of active learning may be applicable to video game tutorials, some of them are interesting in regards to the problems that some games have in providing only “minimal guidance” when actively training players.

For example, Kirschner notes that novice learners have some troubling results when trying to understand a new concept or how to perform a new activity by actively engaging with it when that activity may require more prior knowledge about it than a beginner may be reasonably expected to possess.  Pressing A to jump is a relatively simple task and then being asked to perform that task by, say, jumping up on a table in game world seems like a relatively innocuous task.  While I might never have played the game that requires me to do so, I possess enough gaming experience to know that I need to press a thumb stick towards the table as I press the button to jump.  I am not a novice when it comes to the general concept of jumping via button pressing in video games.  After all, I played Donkey Kong back in 1981.  However, despite my years of gaming experience I have never played any games in the Tony Hawk series. This is largely because I never picked up a Tony Hawk game until it was well into its bazillionith iteration.  Whichever sequel I tried picking up at some point, had an in game tutorial that I simply couldn’t fathom, asking me to do things and string together combos when I didn’t even really understand the concept of stringing together tricks at all and could barely pull off an ollie.  Like my experience with Hearts of Iron 3, I gave up before the game started with a similar feeling that the controls were a kind of untranslatable hieroglyphic created to confound rather than illuminate.  Rather than being overwhelmed by too much information, I suffered from far too little before I was asked to actually accomplish something.  Ever tried to jump into a DDR sequel having not played the first few versions of that dancing game?  That tutorial will kick your ass.

In addition to the problem of minimal guidance for active learning, there also remains a question of the repetition of learned skills.  Many tutorials ask the player to perform a new task multiple times (three seems the magic number that active learning experts advocate), like, while fighting a thug, perform the X, Y, X combo three times.  While a sensible approach to active learning—trying to remember some complicated pattern only one time while having other additional instructions tossed at you shortly thereafter isn’t conducive to conditioning a good reflexive response—sometimes even three times really isn’t enough if it isn’t an action that will be reinforced regularly.  My experience with 2007’s Conan immediately comes to mind. While I am quite sure that I was taught to block during the tutorial sequence, I spent the entire game not even considering the necessity of a defensive move at all (barbarians don’t really play defense so much do they?).  Thus, the final boss battle in the game was a pretty big shock and ultimately an aggravation to me, since the ability to block is utterly necessary in defeating that one villain.  Initially, I found the battle hopeless.  Paging through the two pages of the manual in the hopes of understanding what I was missing about Conan’s abilities didn’t help much.  A trip to the more expository world of was my only relief as someone on the boards there explained in detail a blocking strategy, which I then had to teach myself by getting killed over and over and over again.  Repetition helps teach a lesson I guess.

Which I suppose is my point, that I am neither opposed to exposition or active learning, nor am I sold on either one as a proper pedagogy for video games.  Quite honestly, I want a good and reasonable amount of both in my game tutorials as they each have there use in learning a game.  However, don’t overwhelm me with a novel length description of play before letting me try out a few basics.  Likewise, don’t assume that I already know enough or that I have used all of the skills available in a game enough before letting me sink rather than swim into action. 

Oh, and for the love of all that is good, allow me the option to skip it altogether if I really, really want to.  Everybody knows that school sucks.

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Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009
A breakdown of Alexander Galloway's collected essays on video games.

One of the most interesting questions about video games is, if they are art, how do they communicate a message to a person? How do they cross from what Roger Ebert once described as “sport” into making a plausible statement about the world in a game? A book recommended to me that extensively handles the topic is Alexander Galloway’s Essays on Algorithmic Culture. The text is very short, 126 pages total, and consists of five modified essays Galloway published in various journals. I’m going to focus on his points about political games and player vs machine relationships for this essay. Chapter 2, ‘Origins of the First Person Shooter’, is a comparison of the cinematic techniques of the First Person and how video games build on these. For a variety of reasons, I personally don’t agree with this argument. Intellectual pissing matches where one person cherry picks convenient quotes and attacks another author rarely produces anything useful, so I’m going to just focus on the parts of Galloway’s book I found persuasive. You can read the book and make up your own mind about the rest of it.

From Final Fantasy X

From Final Fantasy X

That said about his heavy reliance on film theory, Galloway is an interesting critic on video games for that same reason: he doesn’t necessarily organize a game by ludic and narrative components. Instead he relies on a series of arbitrary distinctions between types of events in a game. For example, there are machine actions and operator actions. He writes, “The difference is this: machine actions are acts performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while operator’s act are performed by players. So, winning Metroid Prime is the operator’s act, but losing it is the machine’s.” (5) He acknowledges himself that the distinction is meaningless in most games, falling into the lava in Super Mario is just as much because of the operator as it is the machine’s depiction of a loss scenario. To Galloway though, this cinematic interlude is, “a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine. The machine is put at the service of cinema.” (11) These moments are our windows into the world of the game, the point at which we are allowed to look at the machine as a whole rather than just plot or identifying something on the screen. This duality of machine depiction as well as narrative depiction are essential. These machine elements are depicting non-diegetic (outside the film’s world) information. He uses Final Fantasy X as an example, the way that you see all the numbers and stats despite the fact that they are never acknowledged in the plot. A game must continually do this in order to make the player aware of the algorithms that govern its world so they can modify their behavior to become better at play. This is where literary theorists like Derrida become relevant to video game theory, there are multiple layers of what is going on in the game and what is specifically ‘real’.



I’m probably going to bungle this summary of Derrida’s points, the man’s writing is ‘Go F*** Yourself’ hard to understand, but as Galloway puts it there is no central meaning to a video game. It’s not just the plot and it’s not just the ludic elements, it’s both interacting. Derrida, while discussing literary theory, was making the point that the meaning of words and historical events changes over time and from person to person. Little House on the Prairie read today is fairly racist towards Native Americans but in the past was considered a heart-warming story, to give an example. Derrida uses the word ‘play’ to then describe how the meaning of a text is generated; it doesn’t come from one source but rather is bouncing off the person, history, social stigmas, education, etc. The meaning of a word is constantly being adjusted and played with by a reader. Galloway writes, “So while games have linear narrative that may appear in broad arcs from beginning to end, or may appear in cinematic seques and interludes, they also have nonlinear narratives that must unfold in algorithmic form during gameplay. In this sense, video games deliver to the player the power relationship of informatics media firsthand, choreographed into a multivalent cluster of play activities.” (93) In a video game the process of generating meaning through play is made very literal. There is a game’s narrative meaning and then the player constantly playing with those values through the game design, bouncing around these interests.



Galloway goes on to explore the discrepancy between realistic graphics and realistic action in a video game using these ideas. Ordering a pizza in The Sims looks like a cartoon but in terms of action it is more accurate than SOCOM’s storming of an enemy base despite the fact that SOCOM has better graphics. That’s not really how you storm a base but it looks more realistic than The Sims, which features plausible conduct. So the distinction between realism is not really one of visuals, but rather how much you are properly coercing realistic behavior in a player. (73) He writes, “I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the “congruence requirement,” and it is necessary for achieving realism in gaming. Without it there is no true realism.” (78) This is where Galloway draws the distinction between a game depicting a fantasy and one depicting reality, “it boils down to the affect of the gamer and whether the game is a dreamy, fantastical division from that affect, or whether it is a figurative extension of it.” (83) A strong example of this would be Duncan Fyfe’s explanation of why Call of Duty 4 is a fantasy. There are no civilians in the game. There are no complications to any battle except whether or not you’re playing well. Unlike a real war, which requires that you manage all of these complications, the game is just a fantasy war scenario where there are no innocents. It affirms Galloway’s point: the game design is what makes something realistic, not the graphics.

From The Sims

From The Sims

This brings us to Galloway’s ultimate point about how a game communicates a message to the player. Almost every game in existence, whether you’re stabbing dragons or driving cars, presents a depiction of reality. It does this by making its rules transparent in the non-diegetic moments. (93) Rather than the way a film communicates a political message, which is to just have us observe a story and its various characters at work, a game shows us the process and has us go through it ourselves. In this way games often reveal political bias, racism, and other ideologies. Native Americans in Civilization, for example, have a technology handicap that builds on their stereotypes. He adds, “The other great simulation game that has risen above the limitations of the genres is The Sims, but instead of seizing on the totality of informatics control as a theme, this game does the reverse, diving down into the banality of technology, the muted horrors of a life lived as an algorithm.” (103) The game becomes a message about the horrors of suburban life as you engage in meaningless task after meaningless task for a win condition that doesn’t exist. Galloway concludes, “the interpretation of gamic acts is the process of understanding what it means to do something and mean something else. It is a science of the “as if”. The customary definition of allegory as “extended metaphor” should, for games, be changed to “enacted metaphor.”  (118)

The final chapter of the essay explores the opposite approach of delivering a game’s message, rather than focusing on changing the rules you change the visuals. Galloway sees this mostly occurring in the mod and indie scene, something that was just coming into existence when he was writing the book. He notes one quirk about the mod scene, “aesthetic experimentation often trumps interactive gameplay…the three aesthetic realms most often modified in artist game mods are space, visuality, and physics. Modding the flow of gameplay itself is less common.” (118) Galloway cites a few examples like using glitches in the game’s visuals to make you more aware that you’re playing a game or tinkering with the physics so that the visuals become very reflective of your actions. This portion has dated a bit but I think he nails the core force driving the indie scene even today: redefining the concept of play itself for gamers.

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Friday, Sep 11, 2009
A comparison of the hardest levels in Peggle with Trash Panic, and why the latter is considered punishing but not the former.

Gamers love a challenge, but when a challenge is described as “punishing”, that seems to be a roundabout way of saying “not fun.” The implication is that the challenge is so difficult that trying to overcome it can be considered a form of punishment, but what it’s actually describing is a challenge that requires a great deal of precision (and maybe some random luck) and that the slightest mistake can ruin your entire attempt. The sense of “punishment” stems from the game’s seemingly extreme consequences for failure. But it’s a very fickle word; our perception of any given challenge is affected by the rest of the game around it. A game that starts off easy and then gets very difficult won’t be considered punishing no matter how hard the later challenges may actually be. Case in point: Peggle.

Peggle is a conceptually simple game: There’s a vertical board filled with floating pegs of multiple colors. You shoot a ball from the top of the screen, and try to hit all the orange pegs, at which point you’ve beaten the level. Aside from the main Adventure mode, there’s a Challenge mode. In the hardest Challenges, you’re tasked with clearing an entire board starting with just one ball. These Challenges are the very definition of punishing: With one ball you cannot make any mistakes, every shot must result in another free ball or you start over. But these are not generally considered punishing, no part of Peggle is, because the rest of the game works to ease the player into that higher difficulty.

Peggle starts off slow. The rules aren’t complicated to begin with, but it still takes multiple levels before the player is introduced to the four kinds of pegs and what they do. The game is broken up into sets of five levels, and the first set is very straightforward: The layout of the pegs is simple, and there are no moving pieces. The second set adds some large curves, the third set adds some moving pieces, and the board slowly becomes more complicated until the player feels comfortable facing the punishing Challenges.

Trash Panic, on PSN, is very much the opposite. It’s instantly reminiscent of Tetris, but nowhere near as simple. Pieces of trash fall in from the top into a trash can, the user must throw them down, either on top of another piece of trash or at a particular angle, so that they break. If left unbroken, the trash quickly piles up and if three pieces fall out it’s game over. The basic mechanics seem no more complicated than Peggle, but when the use of fire, explosives, and decomposable trash, the odd scoring system that rates you on “Eco” versus “Ego,” the lack of a proper save system, and the lack of a tutorial are taken into account, then just learning the rules of the game becomes an unnecessary challenge.

From a technical definition, the final Challenges in Peggle are more punishing because there’s no way to recover from a mistake: One bad shot means the game is over. In Trash Panic if a piece of trash doesn’t break when we intend it to, there’s a small window of opportunity to fix this mistake if we doesn’t panic. So in this regard Trash Panic is more forgiving, but it’s not the actual difficulty of the individual levels that makes a game like Trash Panic feel punishing, it’s everything else around those levels, it’s that fact that the game does everything it can to prevent the player from progressing. Without a competent save system or tutorial, it feels like the developers never wanted players to reach the fifth and final level. Where Peggle eases the player into its harder difficulties, Trash Panic throws us in headfirst.

On the Japanese PSN, there’s an “Arcade Edition” of Trash Panic that lets you play three “lives” for 100 yen (about $1) When those are gone you have to pay again to keep playing. It’s a fitting structure for the game, since Trash Panic feels like it was designed to eat quarters.

Peggle is a textbook case of a game that’s well paced. With each level lasting only five to ten minutes, we’re constantly faced with new challenges, but the actual difficulty of those challenges increases at a slow and steady pace. Gamers love a challenge, but only when it’s an expected challenge. Trash Panic’s embrace of that instantly-punishing arcade style shows how much games have evolved since the days of the arcade. If a game doesn’t ease its player into the harder difficulties it risks losing them, and there’s no longer someone else standing behind them ready to plunk down a quarter for their turn. Today’s games must pander to the player. That’s not to say they must be easy, or even that they can’t be punishing, but they must let the player know what they’re getting into. Some challenges should be for volunteers only.

Tagged as: peggle, trash panic
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