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Tuesday, Jul 6, 2010
You can describe the characteristics of play and you can define qualities of something that is not play, but it’s always going to be a loose concept.

Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture traces the method by which various cultures develop the notion of play and how play can be seen in almost every facet of civilization. War, religion, politics, sports, and even the arts contain elements of play that drive their production. He is convincing enough in this argument that when he gets to the point where he must establish when something ceases to be play, the answer is more about faith than fact.


There are a variety of scientific and anthropological explanations for play. A child at play is imitating adults, and the reason we engage in sport is to release excess energy. Huizinga points out that the common characteristic of anyone explaining play is that “play must serve something which is not play” (2). Play is an element that merges with something else. Linguistically the word “play” varies drastically from culture to culture. In ancient German, the word for play is an abstract concept that could reference a drinking competition or deciding how to kill someone. In English, i more clearly indicates the exclusion of “seriousness”. In other cultures, the word can be a reference for sexual conduct or a way of expressing laziness (40). Huizinga writes, “All peoples play, and play remarkably alike; but their languages differ widely in their conception of play, conceiving it neither as distinctly nor as broadly as modern European languages do” (28).


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Friday, Jul 2, 2010
My version of a story is bound to be different, but as co-author of my experience, it’s just as relevant as the developer’s version.

This post contains spoilers for multiple games.


Red Dead Redemption feels like it has multiple endings, three to be exact, but only after the third one do the credits finally roll. That’s when you’ve reached the end of John Marston’s story, but your story can continue for as long as you want it to. Games have always been fickle with their endings like this, offering multiple endings, secret endings, joke endings, and more, and through all of them there’s a constant disconnect between the developer’s desired ending and the player’s desired ending.


Fallout 3 is a now classic example of this disconnect. The game was released with a fixed ending that forced people to stop playing. There was a backlash against this sudden conclusion to the player’s story, and eventually the ending was changed through DLC to let us keep playing beyond the developer’s intended end. A recent patch for Portal shows this same conflict from a different angle. The original ending was satisfying and critically well regarded, but the patch changed it to set up the sequel. In both instances, the original ending was changed, one at the request of gamers and the other by the developer themselves, but in both cases, it’s worth noting how the change was met with praise. No one seemed bothered by the fact that the original vision for the story was altered, but this makes sense considering that original vision is still just one version of the story. My version of the story is bound to be different, and it’s just as relevant as the developer’s version.


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Thursday, Jul 1, 2010
I'm painfully aware that all that I'm really doing is pushing the right button at the right place and time. Sure, that's what many games are when you get down to it, but part of the artistry of game design comes from trying to hide this fact.

I’ve been playing Singularity. It’s a fun enough game, and it’s got some neat little tricks to it. With a central conceit built around time travel, the game offers some interesting ways to fast forward and reverse time, although even these aren’t on the level of complexity as the last Ratchet and Clank game. Even through the whole story centers around shuffling back and forth between timelines, the weapons themselves feel mostly like cheap tricks rather than an integral part of the dramatic setting of the story. Hey, it’s a game, and when we’re playing most games, we overlook these things. So let me be clear: the complaints and observations that I’m about to make don’t mean that Singularity is a bad game. It is, however, emblematic of some standard tropes that I think are common artistic failings in many games.


So what is this cheap trick that I’m bitching about? Early in the game, you get a device that can manipulate time. At first, you can cause objects to transform between ruined and pristine states. For example, broken staircases mend and crushed boxes expand into non-crushed boxes. It’s a neat little effect, and it’s used in some clever puzzles, like putting a crushed box under a partially open shutter and making it whole so it acts as a jack, making room for you to crawl under. It’s also used for some silly puzzles, like “un-crushing” a box so that you can move it in place to hop up on a ledge that, really, you should just be able to clamber up onto—except you’re in an FPS. The core issue with this time control device is that it’s just not grand and sweeping enough. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of a world gone mad. Instead it’s just a gameplay tool. You can only use it on certain things in certain places. You can “un-decay” this chalkboard but not that desk. You can dissolve that piece of cover but not most of the walls in the game.


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Wednesday, Jun 30, 2010
Sex is very often (and very unfortunately) just a game.

Sexuality abounds in video games, but authentic intimacy?  Not so much.


One can’t exactly criticize the gaming industry for a lack of tact in presenting physically intimate moments, though.  It isn’t as if Hollywood and the filmmaking industry as a whole has done a lot better than flash some skin and call it a day, mistaking titillation for an actual representation of a mature sexuality.


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Tuesday, Jun 29, 2010
Destroying the very sensation that seems to be appealing about these games is an intrinsic part of the experience.

The notion of coordinating music in block games has been around since the NES version of Tetris. Multiple tracks could be selected from the start, and the beat would speed up as you progressed in the game. Even the original Dr. Mario still has one of the catchiest 8-bit tunes ever produced. Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Lumines changes these features into a core element of the game design by having multiple tracks commissioned from various artists that are coordinated with the visuals. Like his work in Rez HD, each level produces unique sounds for block formation, which coordinates with the background music. What’s impressive about the game is the way that its shifting visuals and music become a part of the complexity in a game that on the surface seems like just another block matching game.


There’s a great article by Ian Bogost over at Gamasutra that illustrates the difficulty in explaining why one block matching game is superior to another, “The truth is, it’s hard to perform thoughtful criticism on puzzles, because they don’t carry meaning in the way novels or films or oil paintings do” (“Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime”, Gamasutra, 23 December 2009). The post contrasts Janet Murray’s interpretation of Tetris as analogous to overworked office culture to Markku Eskelinen’s analysis of the game as a formal system of rules and abstractions. What is the middle ground between the abstract and the formal when analyzing a game with no plot? Bogost contends, “The problem with the Murray/Eskelinen approach to abstract puzzle games is that one wants the game to function only narratively, the other wants it to function only formally. Neither is exactly right without the other. The problem seems to be this: the ‘meaning’ of an abstract puzzle game lies in a gap between its mechanics and its dynamics, rather than in one or the other.” Using Immanuel Kant’s two types of sublimity, the mathematical (sense of vastness) and the dynamic (sense of being overwhelmed), he argues that a puzzle game’s ability to induce these sensations in us is a far better gauge of their quality than something like ‘addiction’ or ‘pretty content’.


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