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

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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 10, 2009
Does the lack of a head-up display make a game more immersive?

The traditional heads-up display is more and more being treated as an unwanted intrusion on the gameplay experience. Players need the information displayed, but the HUD can sometimes be distracting. Many developers try to do away with it, hoping that will make their game more immersive, and different games take different routes with different results.


Far Cry 2 and Uncharted: Drakes’s Fortune have traditional HUDs, but try to hide them as much as possible. In both games the HUD only appears in certain situations, and then fades out of sight when it’s not needed. Far Cry 2 shows the typical health and ammo, but the health meter only shows up when the player is hurt or uses a syrette to heal, while the ammo only appears when a gun is running low and must be reloaded soon. Uncharted takes things a step further by removing any health meter, instead the bright colors of the forest fade each time Drake is hurt until the screen is black and white, and then the color returns as his health automatically regenerates. The ammo appears whenever the player shoots.


Fading a HUD into and out of view depending on the situation is a fitting compromise for these two games. A HUD, no matter how small it is, attracts the eye, so by removing it until it’s necessary the player is more likely to notice the details in the environments. Since both games have impressive environments, it’s only natural that the player be encouraged as much as possible to admire it, and not spend the game looking at a mini map, health meter, or ammo counter. But this technique doesn’t solve the problem of immersion. The character can’t see the information in the HUD so there’s a clear disconnect between us and them. We can see things they can’t. Even if the information in the HUD is limited to only things the character would know, presenting it in a floating, immovable menu still creates that disconnect.


Dead Space has a simple yet clever way of dealing with its HUD. It takes all the standard elements of a heads-up display and treats them as if they actually exist in the game world. The health meter becomes a glowing tube on Isaac’s spine, and all other relevant information is projected into the world as a hologram in front of the character: Remaining ammo floats above our gun, and the inventory hovers in the air while we select items. When the camera turns the inventory turns as well. It isn’t an immovable menu pasted over the action; it’s part of the world.


Dead Space doesn’t treat the player as separate from the character; we can only see what Isaac sees.  Since the inventory is part of the game world, the game doesn’t pause when we turn on the hologram so there’s no menu for us to retreat to if the action becomes too tense. But this real-time item management is the only tangible effect the loss of a HUD has on the game. The dark ship isn’t suddenly scarier, the art direction and sound add more to the atmosphere than the floating inventory does. While Dead Space removes the traditional HUD all together, that loss doesn’t make the game any more immersive than it would have been otherwise.


Mirror’s Edge, on the other hand, implements a unique HUD, if it can even be called that, in a way that makes the game more immersive and even adds to Faith’s character. Like Dead Space, there are no menus pasted on the screen, though there is an optional reticule to prevent players from getting dizzy. The “HUD” comes in the form of red objects scatted about the environment. These objects point the player in the proper direction to help them navigate though the levels. It’s also worth noting that when Faith picks up a gun there’s no ammo counter, the number of bullets left is unknown to her and to us.


Highlighting the path is more than just a pointer for the player, it’s a visual representation of Faith’s natural path finding ability. We’re literally seeing the world through her eyes, not just seeing what she sees but how she sees it. Instead of just making the HUD a part of the world, we’re seeing things from an individual’s unique perspective. We are Faith. When we take control of her it becomes obvious that she’s a professional Runner. Yes, the game tells us so in a cut scene, but we also get to see that fact for ourselves as she picks a path though the rooftops. Even though we don’t have her talent we see it at work, and we see the results.


I don’t think the mere presence of a heads-up display, or lack thereof, affects a game in any meaningful way. More games are finding creative ways to avoid them, but as Dead Space proves, simply presenting a menu in a new way doesn’t make it anything more than a menu. Immersion comes from stepping into the shoes of a character, an idea that Mirror’s Edge embraces to its full extent, and since playing it I can’t help but wonder how other game characters see the world around them.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jul 9, 2009
A fleshing out of the current state of narrative in video games.
From www.the-feral-cats.blogspot

From www.the-feral-cats.blogspot


The relationship between plot and video games has always been an awkward one. Almost every single game out today can be isolated from its story and explained in terms of its design or vice-versa. I can tell you the plot of GTA IV without referencing the game design once. I can also explain a Mario game without mentioning the Princess. The game design doesn’t need the plot to be fun or engaging and the plot certainly doesn’t need interactivity screwing around with its authorial nature. Yet there are a huge variety of games that try to make it work, everything from arcade shooters, board games, simulations and narrative heavy adventure games that propose a wide variety of ideas on how a game’s plot should work with its design. The theory of how to connect the two sides of the experience, narrative and design, is something that is unique for each game. What are some ways to keep the design and plot working together?


From www.howstuffworks.com

From www.howstuffworks.com


When you are combining design and narrative the first thing you have to accept is that both mediums, which can stand alone, are going to have to sacrifice key elements. A plot in a video game does not have a narrative arc. You can’t control the pace of the story and thus you can’t control how the narrative is progressing. The player might get lost, quit the game, go collect random items, or just be trying to get a high score at that particular moment. A game design, once you combine it with a plot, is no longer a dynamic process. Certain elements of the game are going to be set in stone no matter what the player says or does. To give the classic argument, the plot of a football game is dynamic. Anything could potentially happen within the confines of the process. Once you insert a plot, certain things are always going to be present. This football player is always going to have this reaction to a play, this coach is always going to say this particular thing at half-time under certain conditions. Whether it’s a highly linear game or an emergent narrative with lots of vignettes scattered around a world, the plot of a game can at best only be altered a finite number of ways. An essay by Jim Bizzochi argues that the distinction with games comes from identifying what types of immersion they are creating. One type of immersion is the ‘suspension of disbelief’, which requires a narrative arc because you have to tightly pace and control what the viewer is seeing for it to happen. The essay goes on to outline several other forms of immersion, such as “challenge-based immersion” from a game design or “imaginative immersion” from a plot. The trick is that once you combine the two you have to start aiming for a different kind of immersion from the traditional ones like preventing disbelief.


Gears of War, Epic Games

Gears of War, Epic Games


Another essay from Bizzocchi and colleague Douglas Grant highlights the basic hybrid that plot and game design create when merged. You get a Joseph Campbell monomyth. The hero rises up, collects artifacts, overcomes challenges, and returns home to save the day. The characters and development cycle in these stories are convenient for the needs of the game design because they are typically static. An epic hero does not change, there is no real rebirth occurring. Instead they simply become more aware or informed about themselves. Achilles at the end of the Iliad is essentially the same person from the beginning. The events of the book do not personally change him. An epic poem or myth does not depend exclusively on a narrative arc since most portions of it can be read in any order assuming you’ll follow one of the shorter stories. Myths and legends are particularly ripe for conversion into video games because they also revolve around activities. You can explain a huge fight with a Cyclops or a sacred beast in a brawler easily enough. A different approach is to still adhere to this convention but instead develop a plot by having the game be about other characters. Nick Dinicola explains that in aGears of War 2 the main character of the game is actually Dom. Marcus is, like the player controlling him, mostly an observer. Far Cry 2 is essentially the story of the Jackal and his approach to violence in Third World countries. The solution of these games is to keep the player fully immersed in the game design while they observe a plot which, because they are not the focus, can be appreciated independently.


The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios

The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios


Yet it is possible to successfully merge narrative and game design so long as you are able to pace the two experiences in conjunction with one another. One of the greatest success stories of a game doing this is Starbreeze’s aThe Darkness. The opening of the game is pure shooting, giving the player a chance to engage and learn about the game design. The plot is fairly typical and easy to grasp with no major events until a little bit before the half-way marker. The point is that the developers know that the first thing the gamer is going to want is to play the game and they give that to them. When the tedium of shooting, collecting hearts, and other powers starts to grind is when they let the plot kick in. Once a player is fairly familiar with the game, they’re going to be more receptive to story because they don’t have to concentrate as much. The Darkness mixes plot and game design by also fleshing characters out with countless tiny vignettes that are snuck in at every chance. The protagonist, whose change is characterized by personal loss, is has numerous monologues while the game is loading. His condition is reflected in the design as a character dependent on a demon who is slowly taking control of him. The game’s real elegance doesn’t come from the clever plot or game design, it’s how they work together. When the game is really challenging, they don’t bother with story. When the game’s challenge is fairly easy, they let the characters and story have their time where so that they can be better appreciated.


From Immortal Defense

From Immortal Defense


There are other techniques for merging the two mediums besides just pacing plot and game design together. You can just create a series of moments where the two reflect one another. Final Fantasy IV melds game design with narrative by having a key character betray your party. In the plot it’s a hurtful moment, in the game design you’re down a key member in the middle of a very difficult dungeon. Bioshock’s Little Sisters are a symbolic choice that represents the overarching narrative: in a perfect Ayn Rand society would you choose to be altruistic or selfish? Horror games like Silent Hill 2 or Eternal Darkness both rely on the player not knowing what to do and scaring them through a hostile game design. Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico rely on solitude and lack of plot to create a simple but powerful narrative. Some games create their design first and then deliver a static narrative that explores the symbolic and literal implications of constantly doing such an activity like the indie gem Immortal Defense. Combining the two means that new storytelling techniques must be developed that appreciate the strengths of both artistic mediums and does not let one or the other dominate.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009
A twitter poll to see what annoyed people the most about game reviews revealed a lot of surprising complaints.
From southerliving.com

From southerliving.com


Writing an in-depth outline of some common sloppy arguments in video game reviews is basically an exercise in shoving your opinion onto someone else. To try to compensate for this, I shuffled around on Twitter and got advice from several people on the most flawed arguments they see in game reviews. Contributors include 10rdBen, Nelsormensch, SparkyClarkson, mrduranpierre, PopSchiller, mkrpata, Iroquois Pliskin, traceylien, 8bithack, plushapo, Simon Ferrari, and several others. The consequence of using these outside opinions is that I’m personally guilty of several of these flawed arguments in my own reviews. Objectivity is, in many ways, impossible for any one person to manage. But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. Inherent in all of these critiques is the notion that a video game should be judged by the intent of the developers and how well it delivers that experience rather than some personal view that all games should be X or Y.


From dummcomics.com

From dummcomics.com


The controls suck.


Declaring that a game’s interface is bad is usually dependent on comparing it to another game. This game controls like this and I like it, this game seems similar so it should control the same way. Kane & Lynch, for example, got a lot flak for its auto-cover system because it was contrary to how Gears of War worked. The best way to elaborate on the controls sucking is to explain that the game wants you to do X and the controls are making that hard. The issue that comes up is gauging whether or not you’re trying to make the game do something its developers didn’t really intend. It helps to remember that for the average AAA game, a lot of people have played it before it reached you and they all seemed to think it was fine. Assuming they aren’t serving paint chips in the cafeteria, there is usually an ideal way of playing a game that the developers really wish you’d adopt. Do they get that across? Why not? Why would it be better for them to do it your way?


I’m not having fun.


A game review is a consumer report that explains how well a piece of software generates an artificial experience for the user. If you’re not having fun, the game is either trying to give you an experience that doesn’t revolve around making you happy or something is broken in the system. Your job is to explain what’s busted, not tell us your feelings that day.


The graphics are terrible.


We’re talking about an artistic medium that started out as a green dot on a round screen. Everything from text to blocky 8-bit graphics has at one point been considered a great video game. The question is whether or not they communicate the information the game needs properly so that it doesn’t inhibit gameplay.


There are no new game mechanics.


Video games by their nature rely on the pre-existing skills of the player. Part of the way a game appeals to an audience is by being like other games, an FPS plays like an FPS and a Third Person game works on the same basic principles. So it’s inherent for there to be a lot of overlap in any game while changing up weapons and play styles. If you find yourself thinking that the game needs new game mechanics, it’s probably due to dull level design and not working with what it has creatively. Also, complaining that there is no new gameplay in an episodic game series is pretty mind-boggling for the exact same reasons: episodic games by their nature are content delivery systems. The person who plays them does so because it stays familiar, not because they want to play a tutorial every time they fire it up.


The game is too easy.


The odds are that someone who writes reviews of video games has probably been playing them a long time. They are, as a consequence, better at video games than the average person. Staying objective here usually means just playing a game at its normal setting and having some kind of standard based on the game’s intent. Call of Duty 4’s difficulty works because if I go running ahead of my squad and start firing everywhere I’ll die. Bioshock’s kinda breaks down because I can just kill a Big Daddy with a pistol on Normal. If anything, a game that’s too hard even for a game reviewer is the most problematic because it’s catering to a niche audience way more than a game that’s too easy. Does the difficulty stay rational and maintain a sense of fairness about what’s expected of you?


The mini-games don’t have any depth.


I’ve actually read this before so there is apparently some kind of expectation that a mini-game be anything other than a short diversion. The basic use of these things in something like Grand Theft Auto or Zelda is to give you something to do when you get stuck or tired of the main game. Beyond Good & Evil took it one step further by having the entire game be made out of a string of mini-games, but that’s a different bag. The point is that they’re functionally icing on the cake. You aren’t supposed to automatically want to sit there and play them for hours. If you do, like a fishing game or bowling, then the more the merrier. But it’s not really a valid complaint to say that a superficial diversion is, in fact, a superficial diversion.


Criticizing gameplay elements in isolation.


This would be the classic scenario of “Resident Evil 4 sucks because you can’t move while shooting” or “Bionic Commando sucks because you can’t jump”. Which is a totally legitimate reason to not like a game and people should be told that. But taking it as a reason to knock the entire game misses the point the design is trying to make. Bionic Commando wants you to use the arm, Resident Evil 4 stays scary by making you vulnerable when you’re shooting. If the overall game design doesn’t really come together that’s one thing, but taking one tiny portion and considering it inherently bad misses the forest for the trees.


Complaining that a fighting game doesn’t have a deep story.


Seeing this in a review gives new meaning to the term “reaching”. For some genres plot is very important, for others it’s barely even a factor.


Complaining that a Game Doesn’t Have Multiplayer.


This is one of those criticisms that didn’t even make sense back when people made it ten years ago. When the original Darkforces came out, most magazines labeled it as inferior to Doom because it didn’t have multiplayer. The problem with that complaint is that 1) the levels wouldn’t even remotely work for multiplayer and 2) the guns were ridiculously unbalanced. It was an FPS trying to deliver a solid single-player experience and they didn’t have time to balance and organize a game that wasn’t one-sided. Now, thanks to years of people dropping this mindless complaint, games will add piss-poor multiplayer without much development or planning. Should the price change if the game doesn’t have multiplayer? Definitely. Is it a flaw to not be able to go online inherently? Not really.


From universal.com

From universal.com


Complaining that a re-released classic title is old.


This is a real head scratcher. Complaining that ChronoTrigger is the exact same as it was 16 years ago is a bit like whining about Oliver Twist still being the same old book. The game is a JRPG classic and when someone buys it, that’s what they want. The same applies for retro-remakes. If they’re blatantly trying to remake a 1980’s style game for older gamers (the average age is 30, remember?), that’s what they want. Getting annoyed at The Dark Spire for making you need graph paper, being ridiculously hard, and requiring tons of grinding misses the point that it’s a pitch-perfect homage to Wizardry. If the developer’s intent is to appeal to nostalgia, you have to gauge how well they do it, not compare it to today’s standards. A younger gamer can just read “It’s old school design” and know what they’re getting into. There are, believe it or not, people of all ages and backgrounds playing video games regularly.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 3, 2009
Sometimes play is its own reward.

When starting a new game in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, the player is faced with three options for difficulty: Normal, Expert, and Hardcore. When I saw the choices for the first time I immediately choose Expert because I had been conditioned by numerous games over several years to know that the middle option was always the medium difficulty. Sure it was labeled “Expert” but I knew it was just a label. Before getting into the game proper, the player is encouraged to play through the Prologue, what is essentially a series of tutorials familiarizing the player with the various mission types. I did, and I could not beat the third mission. I lost so fast, so many times that I turned off the game in frustration and didn’t touch it for a month. When I finally went back to it, I started a new game on Normal. I beat the Prologue, I won World War III, and I had a blast doing so. As someone who usually never plays a game on the lowest difficulty setting, it was easy for me to rationalize the switch because the setting was labeled Normal. This was the setting the game was meant to be played on, right? Be that as it may, there’s no denying that I had to switch to lowest difficulty setting in order to get past the third tutorial mission. But I don’t really mind anymore, because I loved conquering Europe and Russia and I’d gladly choose that experience again any day.


Mitch Krpata at Insult Swordfighting wrote a series of posts in which he tried to come up with new words to describe people’s gaming habits since “casual” and “hardcore” are horribly inadequate. He wrote, “Some people play to master a game—to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to “see the sights”—to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let’s call these groups ‘Skill Players’ and ‘Tourists.’” There are further subcategories, but for now these two terms effectively describe two distinct (though not mutually exclusive) styles of play. One plays for the experience, the other for the challenge.


These differences in play are exemplified in the blogosphere in people’s reactions to Red Faction: Guerrilla, and the news that New Super Mario Bros. Wii will incorporate Nintendo’s new “demo play.”


Russ Frushtick at the MTV Multiplayer blog and Chris Kohler from Wired’s GameLife blog both write about why they played Red Faction: Guerrilla on the Casual difficulty. Kohler describes what a difference the switch made, “I could absorb far more of the enemies’ bullets, meaning that instead of having to hang back and pick them off from afar, I could run up to the soldiers swinging my sledgehammer, taking all of them out with brutal bashes to the head. I could destroy enemy buildings with impunity, not having to worry that I’d be sniped as I was gleefully reducing a communications tower to splinters.” Frushtick writes about his frustration with the game on Normal, “What did get old was getting shot and dying. Having to run around corners to wait for my health to recharge. Having to take cover and use strategy when all I want to do is rush forward and bash the world in the face with my large hammer. If the difficulty impedes access to the greatest part of a game, just toss the difficulty!” That sentiment more effectively describes the Tourist gamer than any dictionary definition. Sometimes it’s fun to just play.  The mere act of messing around, of shooting and jumping and climbing and smashing and exploring and discovering and dying and doing it all over again, is enough.


But what then, if free play such a good thing, is one to make of Nintendo’s “demo play,” which clearly takes that away from the player. “Demo play” is a kind of help system that would allow players to get past a certain parts of a game by essentially letting the game play itself, and then jumping back in when they’re ready. Reactions by gamers have been mixed, with some supporting it, some indifferent, and some despising it, but the one complaint that caught my attention was the worry that certain players would just watch the game play itself all the way though, treating the game as a movie.


Even if a player watches a game play itself to the end and only jumps in to participate in the final battle, he’s still embracing the very thing that separates games from movies: Interactivity. The player is being given the option of choosing which challenges he’ll face. Skipping certain sections of any game will certainly change the experience for the player, but changes it for the better. For players who find pleasure in watching a game unfold, and not in the challenge of beating it, skipping a hard part only adds to their experience.


Maybe I’m alone in this, but I like the more extreme possibilities of “demo play.” As much as I would like to play Mass Effect, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4, or any of the Splinter Cell games again before their sequels come out, I just don’t have the time. I would love to experience those games again in some condensed form, to refresh myself on the stories and characters without having to commit eight to twelve hours to each game. Maybe just a half hour here and there to fight a Big Daddy, assassinate a 12th century politician, or shoot down a helicopter. Just for the fun of it.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 1, 2009
With a lot of hard work and elbow grease, not only can one survive, but the individual can eventually land the princess.

Mario has always confounded me.  Video gaming’s first sex symbol, Lara Croft?  I get her appeal.  Solid Snake has that Clint Eastwood vibe.  And over 80 years of American cinema has clearly established the irresistibility of large apes with the surname Kong.  But, a stout plumber with a great deal of facial hair?  What makes him a superstar?


Certainly, there is something to be said for firsts.  Mario is one of the first video game characters to become recognizable in part because of his persistent appearance in Nintendo arcade games like Donkey Kong (1981), Donkey Kong Jr. (1982), Mario Bros. (1983), and Super Mario Bros. (1985).  Part of this persistence of the character may be due to his original conception. 


While Shigeru Miyamoto initially imagined Mario as a carpenter in Donkey Kong, he was reconceptualized as a plumber by the time he and his brother Luigi were to appear in a game titled for these two regular joes.  Indeed, Miyamoto reportedly designed Mario with an eye to creating a character that would be relatable to players as an emblem of the common man.  The traditional uniform of the labor classes, overalls, seems a simple enough visual sign to send the message of who Mario was intended to be. 


While I have often found myself baffled by his iconic stature, perhaps, I shouldn’t—especially as an American who should easily recognize the especially American appeal of a hero based not on the traditional qualities of a hero but instead on Emersonian and Puritanical work ethics.  Mario’s first official appearance as a plumber in Mario Bros. contains more than just a brief nod to the uniform of labor.  Its gameplay is wedded (maybe “welded” would be a better choice of words given the blue collar roots of this “American” hero) to the ethics and heroism of work.  Mario and Luigi spend their working hours cleaning out pipes from invading reptiles. 


Interestingly, the game suggests that the work of plumbing is its own reward.  Points in Mario Bros. are accrued by doing the dirty work of keeping the tunnels clean by ridding them of turtles and through the acquisition of spare change (coins) that emerge from time to time from the pipes above.  Turtle extermination and gathering pennies lead to more life for Mario as this work and coin is translated into points that earn “extra lives.”  In Mario Bros., work is performed only so that work can continue. 


Working to acquire money for the sake of survival becomes a persistent theme in the adventures of Mario through this mechanic of money being used to purchase life.  The value of money for survival is established more directly in Super Mario Bros..  Defeating fungus and winged turtles no longer gains Mario anything other than points, but 100 coins always translates into an extra life.  Thus, the practicality of a working class experience is more expressly represented in the economics of the franchise.  The working man is always working hand to mouth.  With every nickel and dime, Mario ekes out a continued existence.


If Mario is heroic as a hard worker though, it is in a kind of Faulknerian sense—because he “endures” through his persistent labor—he is also a hero rewarded in less pragmatic ways.  If perseverance is the practical means to an end in the American mythology surrounding work, the end goal that hard work is intended to realize is one much more ideal in nature, the realization of the American Dream.  The notion that success is a “dream” (as American nomenclature suggests) removes the concept from the realms of pure pragmatism and more clearly recognizes its idealized and romantic nature, the stuff of transcendental dream.  This romanticism may explain why Mario finds himself in such extraordinary circumstances in so many of his appearances.  The blue collar worker rather than a knight in shining armor (the kind of traditional romantic hero of European culture) is the one who will save the girl from the giant ape in Donkey Kong.  Yet, this image is further romanticized in Super Mario Bros. because he is the regular guy who will save, not the girl next door, but the Princess herself. Unlike, the goal of saving Pauline from Donkey Kong, Mario does not simply get the girl—he gets the girl that is emblematic of wealth and prestige, seemingly the end goals of American sticktuitiveness.  That Mario has to traverse seven worlds in Super Mario Bros. and defeat seven incarnations of Bowser and yet is consistently met with the anti-climatic announcement, “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” speaks to Mario’s perseverance as a man committed to keeping his eye on the prize.  If you keep working, eventually you will get to World 8-4 and real success.


In other words, Mario is not merely relatable as a regular joe, but his progress from the labor class to a a man capable of mixing with the elite is a familiar claim of the American dream of upward mobility.  With a lot of hard work and elbow grease, not only can one merely survive, but the individual can eventually land the princess and everything that she represents.


So, while lacking sex appeal, a laconic presence, or even some basic semblance of cool, I guess I can understand that Mario’s appeal stems in part from his possession of true grit and a dream.  Forget G. I. Joe, Mario seen in this way is the real American hero.


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