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Monday, Nov 17, 2008
A break down of the passive sequences in Call of Duty 4 as amusement park rides. Spoilers Abound.


One of the most prolific themes of modern video games is the idea of creating a roller coaster or theme park ride experience for the player. Just as you would go through an amusement park and jump on the various rides, in video games you go through and try out the various experiences offered. The designer creates a roller coaster path through a series of action-packed events. A prime example of this design is Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign. Whether it’s operating the turret in a gun ship, dying in a nuclear fallout, or battling in the streets of a Middle-Eastern city, this is the gaming equivalent of an amusement park ride for modern warfare. Three specific moments are particularly impressive in this design because they push the norm for shooter experiences and offer something besides generic victory scenarios. What Call of Duty 4 tackles in three distinct sequences is dying in a war zone.


 


The first roller coaster sequence takes place in the midst of a Civil War. The developers pull the rug out from the player in this sequence because up until this point the game has been acting like a fairly typical shooter. Suddenly, we are thrust into the body of the President as he is being dragged to his execution. You have no control over movement but can move the camera, a logical game design choice given the linear narrative. What makes it interesting is that players almost never play the victim in an FPS and suddenly, here they are experiencing it. Once it dawns on the player that this is a passive sequence though, there is a risk for things to become boring. In Half-life 2 there are many passive exchanges that are dull. But here, the developers keep it interesting by surrounding the player with activity. Civilians run in terror, firefights are going on, and every atrocity of war one can imagine is going on at all sides. The player still controls the camera and they immediately start trying to see everything going on as the car drives through the city. It is, literally, like going on the Pirates of the Carribean ride except everything has been replaced with modern warfare events. By coercing the player to frantically look all around they are mimicking what a person in that situation would be doing. In this way, the game involves the player into being a willing camera man. A willing participant in making the event be presented the way that it would be for someone actually in that situation. The slow dread the player feels as they see the inevitable gun barrel coming upon them and finally being aimed is also present. The game gives you the experience of being executed and it coerces our involvement through both game design and player input.


The nuke sequence is still probably one of the most incredible experiences a video game has yet provided for its audience. What would the final moments of being at ground zero for a nuclear blast be like? The level opens with the player acting as the character they’ve been playing for several missions and whom we assume is going to be escaping from the blast in yet another frantic battle. Crawling out of the crashed chopper is done at a crippling pace and the player cannot see outside until they get to the exit. It’s an excellent piece of level design that controls the visual flow of the surroundings to the player. Like the passive sequence of being executed, there is a great deal of careful design architecture occurring. Each sight and sound is carefully paced in the level all while the player is still in control. The first thing you see once you get outside the chopper is a dead marine. Any thoughts about escaping begin to fade at that ominous sign. Movement is heavily inhibited and the player falls over several times while they try to move. Your crippld state is heavily emphasized by the sound here as well; each footstep makes a dragging sound and there is heavy breathing in the soundscape. You’re able to make some progress but slowly you start to realize maybe this level is different. Maybe you’re not getting out of here. A glance to the right reveals an incinerated playground and then the moment we were wondering about finally happens. The game design makes you collapse. You look up and finally see the mushroom cloud glowing bright yellow in the background. A crashing sound to your left draws your attention to a sky scraper crumbling to dust. No more walking and the lights dim, with only the strange sound of children playing in the burned out playground going on around you.


The final passive sequence is at the end of the game and it’s just as startling as the others. A lot of people criticized it for coming seemingly from nowhere, but given the almost cliché briefing where the soldiers all talk about buying each other drinks and the fact that you never really know when a mission is doomed in war anyways, it didn’t disrupt my personal experience. Your attempt to escape the Russian Ultra Nationalists goes awry and you end up stranded on a bridge. After two missiles from a helicopter slam your position, you struggle around in shock while everyone in your squad is brutally shot or injured. The camera is controlled somewhat by the player but the game does not hesitate to jerk your head for you, so you can only move it around a small amount. Your fellow soldier is shot while he drags you to safety, the approaching soldiers kill your team-mate, and your captain is struggling with the gun in his belt. In this instance, absolute freedom as in the other levels would cause you to miss the designers intended experience. The final moments of seeing the game’s main villain walking towards you culminate in the player performing the ‘Last Stand’ activity that they have witnessed throughout the game. A downed soldier pulls out their pistol and fires off a few shots before they’re finished off. Only now, it is the player performing the doomed action. Because of the other two cutscenes we are desensitized to our dying and when the gun is slid towards us concerns about staying alive are forgotten. All you want to do is take aim and finish off the person responsible for all of this. Yet the game’s final twist is perhaps its most clever, because just as we are preparing ourselves to die because the game has demonstrated that it has no qualms about killing us, we are miraculously saved. The game explores both elements of combat, dying for no reason as with the nuclear strike and being saved while others die around you.


 


There are a lot of fundamental elements in these moments of Call of Duty 4 that have little to do with game design or even narrative and instead boil down to aesthetics. When a game puts you into a passive situation where you can only observe one must instead approach it as an architect. How is this room conceived? Where do my eyes go? What is the flow? An excellent essay proposes just such an approach to games by pointing out the possibilities an architecture student would see in a video game. What is the perfect way to design the scenery and landscape of an atomic wasteland? Of the room you intend to be the last thing the player sees? It’s an aesthetic that Call of Duty 4 explores with these passive moments and that is greatly enhanced by the emotion the landscape design brings out. It’s not enough to just stick the player in a car that’s surrounded by people being shot. It’s not enough to have people speak to your character instead of shooting at them. Several other FPS games, such as Quake 4’s horrific Strogg conversion sequence or F.E.A.R.’s blending of cutscene and explosions have all explored the idea of passive sequences. What happens in Call of Duty 4 is a passive sequence that doesn’t take away the excitement of participating in those moments because the roller coaster ride always gives us something to look at.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Nov 17, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-11-17

(Schiller is taking a break this week as his body attempts to recover from a business trip gone loopy.  He’ll be back next week with his normal weekly wrap-up.


The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant


He does want to mention that he doesn’t see what the big deal is with Final Fantasy when Square Enix keeps putting out full-featured, innovative RPGs like The Last Remnant...


He also thinks Lips is going to be a bigger hit than anyone realizes…


He’ll probably end up buying a whole pile of sequels in the form of Raving Rabbids, Cooking Mama, Sonic, and Tomb Raider...


And he really hopes the new DS Tecmo Bowl game actually comes out this week (as opposed to its originally scheduled release last week)...


He left a trailer for The Last Remnant for you, along with that humongous list of releases (among which the PSP’s list looks…well, sort of pitiful), after the jump.)


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Nov 13, 2008
The post-mortem reactions and thoughts on a short indie game about death.

The Graveyard is an art game about being old. More specifically, it imposes a series of motion limitations in conjunction with an interruptible cutscene and potential random event. The motion limitation is the limping slow pace of the old woman you control. The interruptible cutscene is when she crosses through a graveyard, sits on a bench, and muses about life while a song about death plays. The random event is that she could drop dead at any moment during this exchange. The game is over when you stand up and make it back to the gates of the grave yard.


The game came out in March and received quite a bit of press when it did, so this post is late to the party. What prompted this was a run-down by the company concerning their experiences with making and releasing the game. The objective of the game, as stated by the developers, “In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure. We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it, interesting and moving.” Accomplishing this meant animating the old woman in such a way that her pace was slow and tedious. On all sides are tombstones while all the branching paths lead nowhere in particular. You go to the bench and the woman reflects about her life and you observe this. Before and after the sequence there is no music and the soundscape is mostly birds and your slow foot steps.


The reaction to this was fairly interesting. Manifesto Games, who represent countless indie games and distribute them for bargain prices, did not respond when asked to host the game. Steam, run by Valve and home to many classic old titles, was not interested. Even Jonathon Blow, maker of Braid refused to host it at his Experimental Games Workshop. The developers explain, “To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because “it is not a game“…The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines. There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn’t find a clear message. It’s as if they, even when looking at art, couldn’t shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.” In other words, because the player lacks the ability to affect the experience through game design, it is not considered a video game.


It’s easy to get pissy about these titans of the ‘Games as Art’ movement shunning a title that goes for such a remarkable experience but they also have their own visions about what direction that movement should be heading. The game is, at best, a piece of interactive fiction and attempts at poesy do not necessarily justify its failure to use the power of choice which makes video games profound. Even the Adventure Company’s Deirdra Kiai complained about the lack of any real understanding about the old woman and being irritated at the game’s slow pace. The issue it raises, both to the developers and the audience, is whether or not revulsion and distaste is a valid emotional response to a video game experience. Kiai complains that she wanted something affirming or interesting about the old woman to make the experience have some kind of meaning that dignified old age, the indie critics preferred Passage because of how the game design created sympathy for the characters as they grew older. Is their failure to find these emotions and meanings in the game a critical failure, considering it sought to explore the contradictions and mixed feeling we have about old age?


Perhaps not. Experiencing that getting old means you don’t have the ability to waltz around the graveyard anymore (and thus isn’t in the game) is disconcerting for most. Having the old woman’s song be little more than musings about frailty and people that have passed away hardly generates empathy. The fact that throughout this experience you may succumb to the very thing all around you, death, hardly allows for much of an emotional response except cynical fear. If there is a flaw to this game, it’s that it does not provide much for the player to experience except the feelings of frustration that Kiai had.


And yet, I am not sure I would expect much else from a game about old age.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008
Video games actually carry many of the expressive properties of language itself.


In a piece I wrote about a year ago on the art of writing in video games, I tacked on at the very end that writing in a video game was more than just creating a setting or series of options, it was ultimately about designing a language. I technically didn’t really know what that meant when I wrote it. The phrase just struck me as correct and after batting it around a few forums that game designers frequent I figured it wasn’t utterly inane. No one told me it was wrong, in other words. What technically inspired the phrase was reading a few articles while researching about personalizing the player’s roles in games. You give actions and conduct that are relevant to the role the player is inhabiting instead of just tacking it onto the same old stab & shoot routine. Edge has an interesting article that goes into this by having a movie director gives his take on the subject. It’s not about giving your character the ability to jump around the world you’ve created, it’s about acting and behaving like the person in the game would. Once you combine that with the features of choice and player input, it is an easy leap to say that when a game is coercing you to act in a certain way, it is just as much encouraging you to respond to things in a certain way. It’s not exactly talking to another person…but it’s not just rolling dice or pressing shoot either.


One of the curious features Clint Hocking has been pointing out about Far Cry 2 is that it allows players to express themselves. Michael Abbott pointed out that on many levels the word “express” is exactly the way a video game feels for a player. That act of participation, of interactivity in a restricted setting, allows for a kind of weird emotional output. Yet what are the inherent virtues of Far Cry 2 that merit this term? The player is in a vast, open landscape where they can make numerous decisions about the plot and their tactics. The numerous choices the player is making are what Hocking argues merit calling something expressive. It connects back to what Sid Meier famously said was the critical principle of any video game: it’s a series of interesting choices. Once a game starts to feature hundreds upon hundreds of choices though, they become something greater than their individual parts. The player is now potentially able to make unique or unforeseen combinations. And as games feature even more choices and options, the capacity for the player to create a combination unique unto themselves becomes a reality. The game becomes a language that the player can use to express themselves by making unique sets of choices. This view is not dependent on games with numerous options either. Even very basic communications are occurring in even the simplest games. As Justin Keverne notes in an essay on game vocabulary, we are forming a sentence of intentions just by playing. When I press forward, in conjunction with my aiming, I am telling the game to walk there. Shoot this person. Duck. The meaning of these instructions is defined in the context with which they are used.


There’s an excellent essay that mentions this idea by Nis Bojin. He uses the Wittgenstein theory of language games and retools it into a method for analyzing words that apply to game design. You don’t need to be a liberal arts major to follow the basic points of the essay. My extremely simplified explanation of language games goes like this: the debate about “free will” or “morality” is inherently dependent on your circumstances and perspective. Part of those circumstances are the actual language you’re using to communicate those concepts. The literal word itself has a varying set of meanings depending on the analogies, phrasing, and linguistic metaphors being used. Trying to isolate those concepts into a universal norm defeats the word’s purpose because it’s setting is what gives it meaning. Put differently, words get meaning from the context of where and how you’re saying them. They cannot be isolated from that without losing their original meaning. Bojin comments, “Being thoroughly entrenched in the language of a given language-game is to be bathed in the conventions, accepted modalities and ideologies that support a way of knowing and taking part in the language-game itself.” The leap we are making is that this is the exact same thing a video game does: create conventions, choices, and settings that the player then acts in relation with. They are expressing themselves within the confines of a language that the game creates with its various options. Bojin goes into very different territory after these initial observations, discussing the relationship of words like ‘play’ and ‘grinding’ as players and designers influence one another culturally, but it’s a very interesting read.


The initial complaint I had to this idea came from a blogger who goes by the name mummifiedstalin. He pointed out the ludonarrative dissonance dilemma, that one is not always or even often capable of expressing oneself in a game. This leads ultimately to a semantics argument about expression, because if you take Wittgenstein into account then our capacity to communicate revolves around the enormous and massive “game” that is our language. There are dozens of ways to express the same thing in a language, depending on the circumstances and ways the speaker wishes to interact with their surroundings. In comparison, video games have far less choices but that does not rule out calling them ‘tiny languages’. Their size then being directly proportional to the number of options given to a player. It can be tough to pick up on this in a mostly linear game like God of War because it has so few options that one can’t really appreciate the ‘games as language’ argument. That’s a game that falls under Hideo Kojima’s ‘games as museums’ design theory, and is more about delivering a series of set experiences that the player roleplays through. On the other hand, games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Far Cry 2 on a greater level represent enough choices compounded together that the first indications of a language start to form. As other titles like Spore increase in complexity through add-ons and fan made materials, this will only become more evident. Games are themselves, despite their confined modes of expression,  languages.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Nov 9, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-11-10...

On Tuesday, November 11, many educational institutions and places of employment in the United States will give their students and employees a day off for Veterans Day, as the day is set aside for the recognizing of the contributions and sacrifices that our armed forces make for the sake of the rest of us.  A pair of releases this week will have an awful lot of people wishing they could take the entire week.


First up is the release most associated with Veterans Day, a game whose Tuesday release is obviously no accident: Call of Duty: World at War.  Honestly, I think it’s a risky move for Activision to be releasing a fifth Call of Duty game even as the fourth in the series remains the top Xbox Live draw.  The release of a new edition of the game, while it will undoubtedly sell gobs of copies based solely on the success of its predecessor, will likely split the Call of Duty online audience, which may well generate some confusion as to which game is the “must-have” of the online shooter group.  This isn’t even to mention that Activision has gone back to Treyarch—if you’ll remember, they developed the oft-maligned Call of Duty 3—for this one, and Treyarch has gone back to World War II for their source material.  Despite all of the caveats, however, there’s simply no way that any online shooter fan will be without this game come Tuesday.


Wait a couple of days, though, and you may notice that the streets will be a little quieter, the traffic a little lighter…as Wrath of the Lich King finally (finally!) arrives on Thursday.  The latest World of Warcraft expansion has been hyped and anticipated for so long, it’s actually something of a wonder it’s been able to maintain the sort of anticipation that’ll lead to the millions of sales come Thursday, but it has and then some.  I don’t need to sell this one—it’ll fly off the shelves no matter what I tell you.


Past those two utterly tremendous releases, the DS has a few releases that might just be enough to pique your interest.  Populous DS is probably something I’ll end up with, simply because the thought of randomly popping hills up underneath people I don’t like while on the subway is terribly appealing.  My Stop Smoking Coach with Allen Carr is an incredibly intriguing release, in that I’ll be curious to see a) whether it sells, and b) whether any testimonials start coming out saying that it actually works.  It sounds utterly ridiculous, but for a nicotine-addicted gamer, it may be the ticket to sticking to a plan.  And there’s Tecmo BowlTecmo Bowl!  It’s almost enough to make you forget that there’s another DS Guitar Hero on its way too.


Oh jeez, I just realized I went four paragraphs without mentioning Mirror’s Edge.  Good Lord.  This is truly a great year.


What are you playing this week?  Or are you just broke from buying all of the other stuff that’s come out?  Let us know, and while you’re thinking, check out the list of releases and the pair of trailers after the jump!


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