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Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009
A closer look at the narrative devices used in Mass Effect that better support its game design. Spoilers abound.

A Bioware RPG is a combination of RPG power accumulation and ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ decisions through a fairly vast narrative structure. Everything from your choice of gender, how you grew up, and what military background you have will lead to unique combinations of missions and encounters. Each player experience, while having common elements, is tailored to fit the user. What has always been compelling about these games is their sprawling narrative and the select moments that the player is allowed to make distinct moral choices during it. I’m going to make the same distinction between types of choices that Daniel Floyd makes in his excellent Youtube videos. If the decision in the game has a clear benefit in the game design, it is not really a moral choice. Being an asshole and refusing a quest which gives you tons of experience and items is not a decision that questions a person’s values, only their ability to evaluate cost/benefit. The following is a closer look at some of the most affecting choices in Mass Effect and how those are created.

An interesting distinction about games from other media is that the scenes in a book or film that a passive audience will take for granted often do not work in video games. Anthony Burch, from Destructoid, makes this point in one of his Rev Rants. You can’t just tell me that an NPC is my best friend and suddenly expect me to care about them. You can’t presume that the player, as the active participant, accepts the burdens of their friendship in the same way that they will watching two people on a screen interact. You have to get the player to like the person. Half-Life 2 has us spend hours upon hours with characters before we are expected to care about one being at risk, The Darkness engages us with our girlfriend through its infamous couch interaction. The key to Mass Effect’s success is by instilling the player with a real sense that their choices in the game matter. It does this by having the player work with characters and establishing their role in the game from the start.

The game starts with people discussing if you are able to become an elite government agent. Your first mission is to rescue a colony under attack while another agent, a Specter, observes you. Failing this mission is linear, but it sets the stage for the player wanting to prove themselves. Your first task is to show that the incident was not your fault and that you should become a Specter. A player review in a forum post by Kateri comments, “This game really makes you feel like a commander, with all the associated baggage. I demanded respect, because I felt like I deserved it. I honestly wanted to prove myself, I really identified with the goals and ideals that were presented to me, in terms of the paragon-type ideals. I wanted to set a good example, and be admired as a leader.” This motivation is established through numerous tiny details and encounters. Humanity has not yet proven itself to the other alien races and is not yet allowed on the Intergalactic Council. While we are on board the Citadel we encounter jealous aliens who do not believe we deserve such privileged status. We encounter others, like the Turians, who do not think we are ready to join them. When your character is finally given Specter status, they are the first human being to gain this rank. Between the diplomats and rival species, the game’s narrative makes sure to establish a feeling that this new rank is important through missions and character interactions.

The choices remain valid because choosing philosophically conflicting decision will not negate your character stats, only which missions you can go on. One of the problems in the KOTOR games is that an evil decision subtracts points from your good powers and vice-versa. These negate combat and other perks, tying the player into behaving in a way that is always dictated by the game design rather than any personal choice. Nick Dinicola expands on this point, “The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is.” Praising Mass Effect later in the piece, he points out that its morality system frees players up to actually make a decision rather than just calculate which one boosts their abilities the most. 

The game also takes efforts to simplify moral decisions by clearly designating which dialogue options are ‘Paragon’ and which are ‘Renegade’. It creates a sort of built-in conscience for the player because it makes sure they know which choice is being rude in the game’s context and which is being noble. Rather than just accidentally saying something offensive, the decision is deliberate. Normally the problem with most morality choices, even game design neutral ones, is that when you’re asking someone to choose between doing something awful and something nice they are generally going to pick the nice choice. In a rant on moral choices, Anthony Burch points out that in field tests of Fable they discovered about 95% of players choose the good path. 4% will try to be evil but become so disgusted with the constant feedback that they quit and go back to the game telling them that they’re a good person. Very few actually pursue choices when the game constantly tells them that what they chose was evil. Mass Effect’s morality system circumvents this problem because it’s a decision about how things should be done. Being a paragon just means being nice, being a renegade just means being blunt and a bit sarcastic. There are even quests in the game that can only be solved by being a Renegade to validate both philosophies. One of the first quests in the Citadel involves a man who has lost his wife and wants her body from the military. Only by being an insensitive Renegade will he finally understand that they need to study the weapons that were used on her to save more lives.

One of the largest moral choices is who you wish to engage with romantically. Depending on your choice of gender, you can either flirt with a male or female human who is fairly complex if you talk to them. The human female, Ashely Williams, comes from a military background and is ideologically conservative. She is defensive about her family, believes in God, and criticizes you for trusting aliens excessively. Kaiden, whose resemblance to Carth from KOTOR is hard to not notice, can be described as Kateri puts it a “32 year old telekinetic virgin”. For the player uninterested in either of these people, the blue alien Liara (whose species can have sex with anyone) will be propositioning you from the moment you meet her. This choice of lovers is given extra weight by the game’s play on both gender and duty during the Virmir mission. You must choose between Kaiden or Williams to go on a suicide mission. When you reach the final leg, you must pick which to save. Since you’ll probably have been flirting with one of them by this point in the game, the decision has extra weight for any player. Choose the one you like and you are playing favorites. Abandon them, and you’re losing a romantic option.

That’s easily the most powerful choice in the game and it achieves this state because of the personal investment of the player. You have spent time developing a relationship with these characters and your choice impacts them. Other, minor and less deep choices, revolve around mostly personal views and impressions. A drug addict begs you to get him some mental stimulants that he is clearly overdosing on. You can persuade him to get treatment or bully him into giving it up. Towards the end choosing to save the alien Council or order the Human Fleet to focus on the enemy forces has some merit, but tends to suffer from that same problem of one choice obviously being more reasonable. My personal favorite was the decision of whether or not to spare the Rachni Queen. The Rachni are a deadly race of aliens who appear during one mission in a direct homage to the film Aliens. After hours of fighting through the deadly creatures, we encounter the Queen and finally get a chance to speak with her. She explains that the corporation corrupted her young and that she will not harm humanity. The Rachni almost wiped out civilization centuries ago and she is the last of her kind. Choosing between killing her and letting her live stumped me for more than a few minutes.

The game is not without its missed opportunities. Almost all of the villains you face are under mind control and thus not really trying to justify their behavior. The ultimate villain, an ancient robot, explains that it wants to exterminate all organic life because it just wants to. When you ask an informed computer near the end of the game why the evil robots bother to kill all life every 50,000 years it responds, “What does it matter?” It’s a surprisingly uninteresting villain for the precise reasons that the other moral choices in the game are so powerful. You invest time and energy into engaging with these characters, then find out there isn’t really much logic to their actions. The potential quandary of an interesting villain, and thus a more interesting conflict, is abandoned and the result is that the player has no issue with shooting robot after robot. Still, for a game that wants people to think about their conduct, particularly one that involves shooting so much, perhaps Mass Effect holds together by not having us mull over everything.

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Friday, Aug 21, 2009
Despite their apparent interest in the online space, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are shooting themselves in the foot.

I recently renewed my Xbox Live gold account, and I was reminded of the first time that I signed up for it just over a year ago. A friend came to visit and brought Battlefield: Bad Company, and convinced me to sign up for a gold account right then and there. It was easy but only because I already had a silver account and wireless adapter. Getting to that initial point required more effort and money than it was worth. In that short span of a year, online connectivity has become a major selling point for games and consoles. Nearly every new triple-A game has some form of online play, either competitive or cooperative, and even some multiplayer-only games have jumped from the PC to the consoles. The consoles themselves embrace the online world with a mix of downloadable games and community features. Yet, for all of this hype and support, there are many unnecessary hurdles a customer has to face before getting connected. Hurdles that can easily scare someone away, and that have consistently gone untended. Despite their apparent interest in the online space, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are shooting themselves in the foot.

Microsoft, arguably, has the most invested in its online offerings. There are many aspects of Live that make it an actual community and not just a mish-mash of anonymous people playing the same game. The party system and standard headset encourage communication among players, and the avatars give people a unique visual identity in addition to their chosen gamertag. Members can watch movies from Netflix, with more from Facebook, Twitter, and coming in the fall. The “Summer of Arcade,” a five week period which highlights certain Xbox Live Arcade games, has become a yearly promotion, and 1 vs. 100 has emerged as a popular community game that appeals to gamers of every ilk. Yet entering this online world is costly. The hard drive, a necessity when it comes to downloadable games and content games, is prohibitively expensive, as is Microsoft’s official wireless adapter. Even then you only get a silver account, to get a gold account and actually play online with others you have to pay a yearly fee. There’s a workaround for people who don’t want to pay for the adapter, but with all the focus placed on Live and its features, people shouldn’t have to want a workaround.

Sony has invested just as much, if not more, with a couple ambitious projects. There’s Home, Sony’s attempt at social networking through games, and in what is perhaps the biggest thrust towards online gaming, the PSP Go will only play downloaded games. It’s easier to get online with the PlaySation 3 since the console comes with a hard drive and wi-fi built in, and the PlayStation Network has a good selection of games, movies, and re-releases of original PlayStation games. Sony even has its version of the “Summer of Arcade” titled “Spring Fever.” While Sony is risking a lot with its online features, support for these features is rare (with the exception of the PSP Go since it’s not out yet). Many gamers have forgotten about Home since there are never any major promotions or events to encourage people to visit. Original PlayStations games are rarely released, so Sony has failed to capitalize on gamer nostalgia in that regard. There’s no standard headset, making many multiplayer games oddly quiet. And the 20GB model (which, it should be noted, has since been discontinued) has no built-in wi-fi, so anyone unfortunate enough to buy that model has to figure out for themselves how to get online. Not an insurmountable problem, but one that shouldn’t exist considering how much Sony has invested online.

Nintendo is seen as having the least to offer online, and this holds true when compared to Microsoft and Sony. The biggest draw of the other consoles is their competitive multiplayer, something lacking on the Wii since most of Nintendo’s focus has gone into the Wii’s online stores: There’s WiiWare for small games made exclusively for the console, the Virtual Console for re-releases of older games, and DSiWare for games or applications made for the portable. The Wii also has built-in wi-fi, so getting connected is incredibly easy. There’s no standard headset, but since there are very few games that even offer online multiplayer, this isn’t as big of a problem as it is for the PlayStation 3. Yet even though Nintendo has a much narrower focus towards its online features, it still has its fair share of unreasonable issues. The Wii doesn’t store credit card or billing info, so you have to input that information every time you want to buy something, a repetitive task nearly unheard of in this age of online shopping. There are no demos, a fact made worse when you take into account the number of sub-par games released to the service. Friend Codes are a twelve digit code that identify you console, but they’re different for every game that uses Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection, so if you play multiple games online you have to keep a record of multiple Friend Codes. In addition, Nintendo doesn’t promote its online service at all. Microsoft has its “Summer of Arcade,” Sony has its Spring Fever,” but no downloadable game for WiiWare receives any promotion by Nintendo. It’s as if the service doesn’t exist.

As more focus is put into online features, it should be made easier to get online and access those features. But while each company has a lot to offer, they seem unwilling to support those offerings beyond simple marketing, and Nintendo doesn’t even that. I’m sure there are many people who have a 360 that uses the blades system. They’re the kind of people who only use their console one in a while, and have no desire to pay for all the peripherals needed to connect online, or compete with others not on the couch next to them. Convincing these people to get online will be difficult, if not impossible, if these hurdles remain.

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Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009
Sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.

So, I’d heard some good things about Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.  As a fan of the Western genre, I felt some desire to check it out, so I spent a few days with the game.  And, indeed, it is a pretty good game.  It is extremely pretty, handles some good standard Western themes (greed, revenge, struggles over domesticity and family) rather well, and has some good very good shooting mechanics.  The latter quality is to be expected, though, from an FPS.  After all, a shooter should be good at (if not exceptional at), well, shooting.

What had me baffled after my satisfactory encounter with Bound in Blood was why I hadn’t played the first Call of Juarez.  Well, I had played a bit of it, but by now, my experience was a hazy memory.  I knew I had rented it, and it was one of those games that I put in, played for an hour or two, and then had cursed the fact that I had paid for the 5-day rental instead of the 2-day.  But, all I really remembered was that I had thought that it was bad for some reason or other.

Having played through its prequel now, though, I decided to give the game another go (and even reluctantly went with the 5-day rental plan).  It took me only three days to complete the first gane, and I suffered for most of the 11 or so hours that it took me to get through it.

Unlike many of our expectations about film sequels, the fans of video games often do not necessarily have low expectations for sequels.  Very often improvements in graphics quality, new and improved mechanics, and overall higher production values for a game can mean that a sequel to a successful game title might in fact mean a better game than the first.  Certainly, the graphics, mechanics, plotting, and voice acting in Bound in Blood are all superior to the original Call of Juarez, which also certainly explains some of the pleasure that I found in the sequel as opposed to its predecessor.  However, a play through of the original also reminded me of why I had found the first game just kind of silly enough to turn off after just a few short hours.  Much of Call of Juarez is simply unconventional.  And not in a good way.

The most frustrating and, very simply put, outright wacky elements of Call of Juarez are largely found when playing the bits of the game dedicated to one of that title’s protagonists, Billy Candle.  Billy is an outcast Mexican-American orphan who is a bit of a thief, so in addition to wielding a six shooter in the game, he also does a lot of sneaking around and… jumping? 

Very early on in Call of Juarez, the player is introduced to Billy’s whip and trained to use it to snag overhanging branches to swing from cliff to cliff.  He also climbs around a lot.  Oh, and he has to jump… a lot.  I guess that locomotion is a fairly important detail in most video games, be it walking, running, driving, flying, or jumping.  Indeed, jumping is one of the staples of video gaming.  For example, you may have heard of a certain upwardly mobile plumber that has starred in a few games.  However, it is less of an essential staple in most FPS-style games.  While Mirror’s Edge attempted to make a go of hybridizing jumping mechanics with the first person perspective, its success in doing so is debatable.  Whether or not Mirror’s Edge was able to pull off the marriage of platforming with the FPS genre though, its efforts to do so are certainly a lot more successful in doing so than Call of Juarez was.  The inability to gauge distances easily without seeing your character on screen makes the large chunks of platforming in Call of Juarez... well… fall flat on their face. 

Part of the relative success of Mirror’s Edge at better platforming sequences, though, is clearly related to the focus and interest of the game and its designers.  It is a game about a parkour-style runner, and thus, a lot of effort went into working with this essential mechanic,a mechanic necessary to gameplay but also to the narrative of the game.  When one considers Call of Juarez, one wonders what exactly is the interest in wedding a Western narrative to platforming mechanics.  Doing a first person shooter that is a Western?  Makes sense.  As previously noted, an FPS is all about shooting mechanics.  Westerns are kind of interested in that kind of thing, too.  But, I don’t often see Clint Eastwood gingerly hopping from precarious perch to precarious perch in the Leone films.

That isn’t to say that there is no logic whatsoever to making Billy into a character that has to make quick and unusual escapes.  As I mentioned, he is a bit of a thief.  However, as both a gamer and an avid fan of the Western genre, it certainly was a surprise to me to find myself hopping around Mario-style in a game that advertised itself as a Western.  Part of my initial irritation at the game may be related to simple expectation, that this was not the game that I expected to play given the literary or cinematic genre category that it falls into (I would also be very surprised by witnessing torture porn gore in a light romantic comedy or a lot of skin in a children’s movie). 

But, given the focus of the genre itself, it seems that not a great deal of energy went into developing these, the worst parts of the mechanics of Call of Juarez.  For example, witness the way that Billy’s shadow hangs stiffly in the air when he swings from a tree branch.  It is as if no thought was given to animating poor Billy when he hangs from his whip because the player cannot see him and because swinging is such a minor element by comparison to the other FPS-related mechanics in the game. 

By the way, it is those mechanics, the shooting mechanics, that Bound in Blood does very, very well.  Improved concentration modes (when you get to slow down the pace of the game in order to gun down a room full of enemies because you are: just that fast), floating targeting reticles that snap to targets when blazing away with two guns, and increased accuracy with the slower but harder hitting rifles all make Bound in Blood‘s gun play that much more authentic in feel and that much more fun to experience, which is kind of what I expect in a genre associated with… gun play. 

Now, I don’t want to say that innovation isn’t nice sometimes (Sukiyaki Western Django is an often weird but interesting film for example), but I do want to say that sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.  There is a pleasure to be taken in conventionality when it is done very well, and it is often done better when the dominant experiences in a game are focused on at the exclusion of curious odds and ends that don’t necessarily suit the genre or, more specifically, the way that the gameplay complements that genre.  Bound in Blood does include some light swinging and sneaking elements (I suppose as a nod to the conventions of its predecessor).  However, these moments are blessedly brief.  Most of the impact of the new game lies in its adherence to the conventional elements of the Western.  The game is more an homage to the gun fight than scattered pieces of game play mechanisms that are all underwhelmingly accomplished.  Given the pride that the game takes in accomplishing what it is and doing it very well, I have to prefer the more conventional vision of the Western in this case.

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Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009
A brief synopsis of the ideas set out in Unit Operations.

Of the several books Ian Bogost has produced so far as a video game academic, Unit Operations remains probably one of his densest and hardest to follow. There are a lot of reasons for this. For starters, it’s not so much about video games as it is a philosophy of how numerous forms of media can be interpreted like a computer program. The first 45 pages of the book don’t really even address games, instead creating a large philosophical foundation for how literature, film, and video games work like a unit operation. The book’s focus narrows to video games eventually because as an artistic medium, their unit operations are very obvious. It’s much easier to convince someone that Grand Theft Auto III’s narrative revolves around mathematical abstractions then it is to say Hamlet revolves around them. Everything from Derrida or Aarseth to T.S. Eliot’s notion of objective correlation between elements is brought into this analysis. As Bogost himself notes at the start of the text, the educational background required to fully grasp all of these elements is not only large, it’s contradictory. People with engineering degrees tend to have trouble with abstract thinking (but that’s the rule!) and people with liberal arts backgrounds tend to have trouble with objective thinking (but that’s not fair!).

It’s hard to pin down a specific definition to the concept of unit operations because Bogost ends up comparing it to so many different things. If you were an English Major, I’d tell you that essentially it’s an archetype. If you were a computer programmer, I’d say it’s a way of organizing a program’s functions. Bogost writes, “A unit operation may be observed in any artifact, or any portion of any artifact, rather arbitrarily. I insist on this broader understanding of unit operations to allow its logic to resonate across expressive forms, from literature to film to software to video games.” (14) I’m going to break down the definition of unit operations into two areas: literature and computer programming and then explain how Bogost applies that to video games.

First, Bogost compares a Baudelaire poem with a Bukowski poem. Both poems are about seeing a beautiful stranger on the street and the depressing realization that you will never see them again. He explains, “the figure that fascinates has become an effective unit operation, a tool for engaging modern life. It would be overzealous to equate this figure that fascinates with a software subsystem. [. . . instead] Bukowski’s poem relies on a consolidated version of Baudelaire’s figure, that it enacts this figure by playing by its rules.” (80) Bogost eventually acknowledges that this works a lot like an archetype. In this case, the character from either poem is defined by several rules. They are a beautiful stranger on a crowded city street, and the user will never see them again. That’s the archetype/reoccurring event that constitutes a pattern.



Unlike two similar poems, which are using the same abstract concept to communicate a feeling, a computer program communicates through the manner in which the programmer is organizing its various subroutines. Bogost writes, “Pattern creation or recognition systems…usually take the form of unit operations that perform one kind of action on data, resulting in some judgment about its worthiness as a particular pattern.” (29) I don’t have a sufficient background in computer programming to grasp all of this so I got some help from one of his grad students, Simon Ferrari. I’m going to just post a trimmed version of his explanation:

When you get into the computer science background assumed in Unit Operations, it’s talking about object-oriented programming (OOP). Like a lot of things we study in digital media programs, OOP goes back to Xerox PARC. Alan Kay’s team created this language called Smalltalk, based on the idea of “classes” that had been established earlier on. Data is encapsulated into a series of independently functioning units. I had to take a programming class to really understand what this means. First you declare a class, which is kind of like an archetype or a Platonic idea: it has a name and a set of generic traits and behaviors (this is the “constructor”). From a class you can propagate objects, individual working units which inherit characteristics from their parent class (and can also bequeath characteristics to another generation of objects, called their “children”). The big move here, the important one for Bogost, is that classes and objects in OOP also contain their own functions—if you’re a member of the class “gameJournalist,” then the action “interview” is already built into your code. This means that once you declare a few objects, you don’t necessarily need to have other, system-level functions running to get them to interact. This paradigm wasn’t very popular until the 90’s, but you can see why it caught on once programming came out of the nerd ghetto: it’s a lot more human than a series of subroutines.

To iterate this point, Bogost uses the example of a computer program tracking the background data of potential terrorists. What does it mean if a person is 70% likely to be a terrorist to a security guard deciding whether or not to search them? The program has created an abstraction because, like the poems, there are elements of uncertainty and mystery created by finite rules.

How this idea ties into video games is that a unit operation can be analyzed distinctly to gauge what the message of a video game can be. Bogost explains that computational systems “rely on unit operations as their primary mode of representation, and thus unit operations have a special role in how works like videogames function.”(65) In literature and film, unit operations are present but not nearly as central as a computer program. To make this point Bogost explains that games are organized by their technological capacities rather than their IP or even controls. We define a game by what the software allows us to do in it. This is distinct from film or books, which divide themselves by the story. He writes, “First-person shooter game engines construe entire gameplay behaviors, facilitating functional interactions divorced from individual games. Genres structure a creative approach to narrative; they describe a kind of story…game engines differ from genres in that they abstract such material [guns, villain, etc.] requirements as their primary – perhaps their only – formal constituent.” (57)

From Grand Theft Auto III

From Grand Theft Auto III

How does this work in application? Essentially, a video game asks a player to make sense of a bunch of data patterns or abstractions. Put Bogost’s way, “Video games require players to create a subjective understanding of the synthesis of one or more unit operations. Games demand that players be capable of making this synthesis palpable in their own experience.” (123) Understanding how this then leads to the creation of a message as concrete as a poem depends on two statements Bogost makes:

1) Unit Operations are biased. They always show a way of things working that are limited by human thought.

2) Unit Operations and Subjectivity have a dialogue which is simulation fever that occurs on the outside, in the viewer, not intrinsic to the game. (133)

Number two is the big one here. Subjectivity is where you, the individual, come into the equation. A video game player interacting with a large series of unit operations is generating an experience that is not intrinsic to the game. Or, put another way, that’s the key ingredient for something being a message instead of a sport. The message of a game is basically its depiction of reality (the simulation) and the subjectivity is our reaction to it based on our individual experiences.



Bogost outlines a couple of different types of simulation response or fever for a player. “Simulation resignation”, he says, “implies the blind acceptance of the limited results of a simulation, because the system doesn’t allow any other model of the source system.” “Simulation denial” implies the rejection of simulations because they offer only a simplified representation of the source system. Bogost contends, “A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity.” (107) Here is where Derrida’s contention that “the only way to preserve work in an archive is to expose that work to its possible deconstruction” becomes key to unit operations. The way a simulation can communicate an idea with us is by the player being aware of its limitations and recognizing what the system is trying to communicate as a whole through its limited depiction of reality (109).

How does one apply this to video game criticism? Bogost talks about Greg Costikyan’s reaction to September 12, which is a game about bombing Iraq. The player shoots a missile that moves very slowly at a terrorist, often hitting civilians instead. The surviving civilians go on to become terrorists themselves. Costikyan, who lives right near where the World Trade Center used to be, wrote a scathing critique of the game’s political message. To summarize, the game isn’t realistic and doesn’t factor in numerous complexities about 9/11. Bogost says that this is a prime example of simulation fever or someone having a strong reaction to a depiction of reality in the game. (132) Another example is Grand Theft Auto, which makes us aware of our desire to misbehave and break the rules because our reality varies from the projected one. I can run around smashing cars and shooting civilians, which is obviously not realistic. The difference between reality and the simulation makes me aware of the game’s discrepancies and thus how I would behave in a modified reality. Bogost notes, “The reviewer who insists that once you play GTA ‘you can’t go back’ suggests that the game successfully draws attention to the player’s relationship to potential delinquency.” (168)

This is important to video game criticism simply because the concept of unit operations neutralizes a lot of the value arguments people still make to this day. A linear game is just one that is more biased than an emergent game. Both are just techniques for communicating with the player. The game’s message, the simulation fever, is still extrinsic to the system. Or as Bogost notes, “The type, and not the degree, of emergence is the deciding factor in the expressive potential of a complex system.” (151) Given the finite nature of such expression in any simulation, Bogost’s ultimate contention is that the player’s meaning is still going to come from where the simulation ends and reality begins.

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Friday, Aug 14, 2009
A look at two parodic flash games and what they reveal about the mechanics they parody.

Parodies by their very nature give us a different perspective on things. Whether it be a plot, genre, or game mechanic, we see a different side of things when they’re viewed through the lens of humor. There are two recent flash games in particular that, while making fun of popular game mechanics, give us a unique look at the roots of those mechanics and why they’re so popular.

Upgrade Complete is a game that makes you upgrade everything. To begin the game, we have to buy a shop menu screen, but since we don’t have any money in the beginning we have to accept a loan from the developer. Then we have to buy the preloader to actually load the game and menu buttons to actually play it. The game itself is a 2-D top-down flying shooter. We can buy missiles and lasers and guns (all upgradeable of course) to help against the waves of enemies, or we can use the money we earn to buy and upgrade a logo, copyright info, the graphics, or a game over screen.

Achievement Unlocked is game that’s all about unlocking achievements. The game itself is mostly a platformer: there’s a single screen filled with blocks, jump pads, and spikes, all traditionally found in some form or another in platformers. But Achievement Unlocked is really more of a puzzle game, since our only goal is to figure out how to get all 99 achievements. It begins easily enough, giving us achievements for preloading the game, watching the sponsor screen, and pretty much rewarding every other simple action we could make: moving left, moving right, jumping, dying, etc. Everything nets us an achievement; we’re even given infinite lives so the game doesn’t end until we either give up or get every achievement.

Some time ago, Mitch Krpata from Insult Swordfighting tried to come up with new ways to describe gamers’ play styles, rather than use the inadequate “casual” and “hardcore.” One such descriptor was the Completist gamer: “A Completist may be less interested in maximizing his ability to play a game, and more interested in making sure he doesn’t miss anything…The reward is having no mountains left to climb.”

The Completist gamer is just a subset of the larger category of Skill Players according to Krpata, but given the popularity of achievements, I wonder just how “sub” that subset is. Gamers are completist by nature; we’ve been trained to be that way and are continually encouraged to keep it up. Whether it be finding all the collectibles in a game or just trying to beat it, both actions require us to complete a game to a certain degree. Especially in this day of constant hype for new releases, we’re encouraged even more to complete one game so that we can hurry to the next.

In a broader sense, Upgrade Complete and Achievement Unlocked are not just parodies of the mechanics that they’re named after but of our attitudes towards games. These are collect-a-thons in their purest form. Achievements and upgrades are just an evolution of the stars in Super Mario 64 or the puzzle pieces in Banjo-Kazooie. Achievement Unlocked is, arguably, the better parody because it portrays achievements as the old-school collectible they are, while also embracing those roots. When we play it, we’re having fun collecting even as we realize we’re the butt of the joke. Upgrade Complete on the other hand has a message at the end telling us to rate a game more on how fun it is than how complex its upgrade system is. Yet the game is fun solely because of its absurdly comprehensive upgrade system. It undermines its own message. The best parodies embrace what they make fun of, and Achievement Unlocked plays straight to our completist, collectible-loving nature. The fact that I used a FAQ to make sure that I collected all the achievements says it all.

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