While the pseudo-highbrow titles of the Independent Games Festival are announced with aplomb, each year feeling less and less indie (which is wholly different than being independent), the raw creative reactionism just isn't there. I don't think I'm jaded, it's just not exciting when indie game means a game made with less than a half million dollars employing one of the following play mechanics: Flash physics, time/perspective manipulation, or audio visualization. Or worse.
It's as if each time the Incredible Machine is developed cheaper, somehow the gaming frontier has been challenged. Seriously now, can we get over it? Remember when garage bands did their thing in isolation, before they saturated punk, ska, grunge, and many so-called underground movements with so many novelty acts that the genre was drowned by its own crowd? Instead, the only game from the festival I wanted to run out and make everyone play was You Have To Burn The Rope, which is an interactive fuck-you as brilliant as Malevich's White on White, and will no doubt be replicated to death as if the art was in the game, not the moment.
Yet that game tells the very opposite message as Malevich's piece, as did Rod Humble's The Marriage, which showed how subjective we really are, and how that can be turned into gameplay. There is no supremacy of form in today's rabidly media-hungry culture... all elemental form, all sensations, all primitives are transformed instantly into subjects of intricate, post-modernized stories. There is no isolation. I fear the internet has made this change in human cognition permanent.
So why not embrace it? That's why You Have To Burn The Rope is fantastic... for games to become art there must be an awareness and a conversation with its own history. Film, music, and literary critic call this allusion, but for the creators, this isn't just a word, it's a dialogue. Which means it should invite participants. For me, I'm far more intrigued by stop-motion artist Patrick Boivin's attempt at turning a linked sequence of videos into Youtube Street Fighter.
Yesterday night we returned from a weekend spent in Toronto visiting my mom's side of the family, and my Grandma who is pretty far gone down the dehumanizing imprisonment of a body stricken by Parkinson's disease. I know she could see us, hear us, and understand who we were, all by the steady twinkling in her eyes, but the best she could manage for a greeting was one upturned corner of her mouth.
You're going to wonder what the hell Diablo 3 has to do anything with my grandma. It doesn't really. It's just this anxious feeling I get, this yearning for radical change, that renewed in me seeing what my own frail old age may be. You ever get that prickly desire to go out and do something anything that matters? Watching the old folks at the convalescence home been force spoon-fed their medicated gruel, Xstine kept gouging my ribs and saying "See! Exercise! Take care of yourself!" But that feeling wasn't new to me, as I had volunteered at these places when I was a teen.
So when I excitedly saw the gameplay trailer for Diablo 3 (see below), I knew I was set up. I happened to have been playing Titan Quest recently with Xstine, which is nothing but mindless grinding, slaying monsters, gathering loot, repeating as flea on flea on flea. It's a game that is fun because it offers no redeeming values, and you yield yourself to that like a drug. The art is fantastic, but the game is simplistic. I never actually played the first two Diablo games, but I imagine they weren't much more.
The question we ask ourselves often is "Have we wasted our lives playing things we have nothing to show for?" Unlike many of the other games I've played, Diablo-type and World of Warcraft-type games feel like they've added very little to my person and yet have debitted so much of my productive free time. How should I translate every second wasted in these games into seconds of my life I could have extended with exercise?
Then I had to listen to Blizzard, the masters of game design, ruminate like guffawing film students as they talked about their design approaches to Diablo 3. It was embarrassing. It shattered my mental picture of them to hear them say stuff like "it makes it more interesting to make the hero the center of the story." Or to point out their grand "philisophical" vision taught to make a barbarian class more barbaric. My gods. I hold those game designs to be self-evident. Hearing that kind of "enlightenment" has seriously made me consider what the personal value these games are having on my life. Now when I play, I can see my grandma's eyes through her haze, judging my expense of youth.
Michael Walbridge the Game Anthropologist has some interesting things to say about why he felt the Team Fortress 2 community was more civil and mature than what we've all experienced to be the absolute dregs of humanity in other online FPS's. I won't mention Unreal Tournament, Counterstrike, and Halo, but oops I just did.
While I think his points are on the dot about the way the team dynamic of the game fosters a cooperative us vs. them bond for the players that ultimately leads to self-regulation, and I like how he explains that anti-social behaviour is deflated by being an actual part of gameplay, there's another point I'd like to add. So far, his comments are true for most team-based online shooters, just handled more elegantly in TF2. Yet one aspect of the game that stood out to me only after a lot of intense playing is that the character classes in TF2 were like tools to me.
Tools? Well, at a certain level of skill, we pick and choose from a small range of classes that we know well, and apply them to the current situation on the battlefield. I don't think the majority of players play only one class. For myself, I choose between soldier (objective-driven offense), pyro (defense and chokepoints), and engineer (control) constantly as needed. The classes are like my swiss army knife of the proper contributions my team needs.
I think this leads players to identify less with some avatar online through which they would normally evoke all the horrors of anonymity, and instead a certain fourth wall is broken and a player is displayed onscreen as his tactical choice. In my opinion, this places players and their decisions in much greater proximity to each other because their intentions and personalities are more transparent. Only in that kind of openness will player-to-player advice and criticism mean much. I had similarly mature companionship in games such as the Battlefield and the Tribes series, and provide the same way of thinking about your avatar. I don't think that's a coincidence.
If you care about games as games, then you should be as disappointed as I am to see that Boom Blox sold only 60,000 copies, even with pantheonized director Stephen Spielberg at the helm. Was his own critically panned addition to the Indy series a harbinger of the move away from well-executed formula in both games and films? Or have the formulas simply become more surreptitious about invading our pop psyche?
Boom Blox is a great game. It accomplishes what many party games want but can't do- elicit laughter, name-calling, and a group agony of suspense over an individual's gameplay, all within ten minutes. The physics are so well done that smashing blocks is the Wii equivalent to popping shipping bubbles. But each ball toss, nothing we haven't done a million times in our lives, causes a whole room to hush, tense up, and then explode along with the shower of blocks in the game.
I think the game takes advantage our primal instinct, that need to dash apart hours of construction a castle made of blocks represents, but gives it to us without the need to clean up the mess. There's no guilt, just the enjoyment of aftermath. Cause, reaction, cause, reaction... and at the same time we know exactly what will happen, but not what happens exactly.
It's a time-tested formula. It's proven. It usually works. And yet it failed on the same platform Nintendo made it work. I don't want to believe there is some kind of Nintendo magic that they apply to their first-party games. There were too many mistakes in how Boom Blox was marketed, how its art was directed, how it was priced, etc. blah blah. However, at the end of the day, I can't help but feel that its simplistic fun, like the taste of a fine Italian pasta with nothing but EVOO and a shred of cheese, is not what epic thrill-seekers with a taste for more "refined" fare are willing to give a sliver of chance...
...unless of course they're giving it to Nintendo.
Yesterday's cover story on Gamasutra was an article I wrote called Designing Happiness, about combining happiness research and game design. Please check it out!
I'm very happy to see design mature from throwing opinionated spitwads at glass to see what sticks to the discipline that it is becoming. It seems like after the Silver Age of gaming in this country, the dedicated designer role disappeared for a while. It wasn't a bad thing, as it forced designers to master other disciplines, to become more technical or more artistic, to gain a more tangible role than the kind that hackers and table-top dungeon masters had. And now, armed with some dangerous knowledge, game design is seizing it's own role again. I think some practices in the past gave pure game design a bad name, but that will change.
In this evolution, I see the next step of it as attuning the plentiful principles of game design into both a science in itself, and a substrate for other sciences. Philosophical taxonomists like Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen did the former in Rules of Play, finding the core features of what games unique systems. Their book helped game designer know ourselves. My article was a small step towards knowing others. With the science of game design defined, I think we should apply them in context, find our motives and our audiences, and cross-reference the vast knowledge of other fields. As long as games are designed for a player, and that player is human, then all the other realms of science that actively seek to improve human life are relevant.
I selfishly "borrowed" the Wii Fit board at work for the long Memorial holiday, although it was more like grand larceny with the kind of looks people gave when I called shotgun. And boy was I sorry to give it back today. I called every single store I could think of, and many no one has ever thought of, and places were sold out within an hour or two. Fry's Electronics emptied their hoard of 80 in three hours. Nintendo stock, Nintendo stock.
Like all things Nintendo makes, if you try it with an open mind and the intention to find something enjoyable, you usually will. The Wii Fit board was no exception, delivering a level of fun and intangible feelgood that I never expected in the three months I had the opportunity to place a pre-order. Along with the Mii channels, Wii Sports, Everybody Votes, and their Brain Age games, the Wii Fit board capitalizes on something that Nintendo has dominated to great commercial success: our desire to discuss ourselves. Everything about the Wii Age and the Brain Age rankings, the nifty progress graphs, the popularity contests, etc. are about finding the personal information we're secretly dying to examine and share. It's that famous saying that our favorite subject is ourselves.
So does it work?
Well, my sore abs, bruised feet, and Xstine's whole aching body can attest that it definitely does more than we ever thought a video game capable of. There is no doubt that with regular use, it can make you fit. That's not to say you can bulk up, or run marathons, but for the average inactive potato, it's great to work out in the fun and comfort of your own living room.
To all those parents out their shocked that the game told your precious spawn that they were overweight or obese... yeah, your kid is probably fat. Or you didn't read the part in the manual where it explicitly states that BMI is not an accurate index if your kid is muscled from all the sports they supposedly do. And most importantly, you haven't taught your kids that their self-image should never be dependent on the non-judgemental conclusions of a mindless toy. Unless your child really is "big-boned," promise.
The two big swaths of entertainment for us this past week has been Iron Man (which Xstine and I saw for a combined 5 times!) and, of course, Grand Theft Auto 4.
Ah, GTA4... I quickly got bored of the original Playstation one, but somehow this latest entry has really brought back the fun. THere is a certain threshold that the right amount of variety crosses to give you the feeling of an infinitely rich world, and they were finally able to pull it off. Don't get me wrong, there are still obvious repetition in peds and vehicles, and the facial animation isn't nearly as well done as people seem to think, but all is forgiven the moment you enter this beautiful game. They've set a standard in time-of-day lighting, panoramas, and sheer environmental variety. Every part of town has it's own flavor reflecting the virtual "realities" of the local economy, history, and people. It's as close to a living breathing city as we have in video games.
The gameplay interests in a different way. Sometimes, the missions can be unforgivingly hard since the camera is utterly obtuse, and the controls are a mash-up of schemas that just couldn't get along. I suppose they had no choice, but there is certainly little elegance in getting your protagonist Nico Bellic to do a wide range of mundane to violent actions. Somehow, the sandbox play eases up the difficulty scaling by letting you go on murderous tangents whenever you feel frustration rising. It's very self-regulating. I may be en route to a critical mission when an off-the-cuff remark from a sassy pedestrian will send me into a rampage, and an hour later I've accomplished nothing but a trail of bodies. What better way to take out my frustrations at repeated mission failings.
That lack of progress is a bit tiring, and the game's punishment system is too binary (being arrested is worse than dying because you get all weapons stripped?), and the saving is a penalty itself (you can't save mid-mission, you can't quit missions, and you only have one place in a huge town to save). But for once I can overlook fundamental gameplay flaws because the game isn't just polished, it *is* polish. From the endless webpages you can browse to a huge amount of television and radio content, there is no shortage of quality satire of every aspect of our real lives. There's too much to absorb that it's almost paralyzing.
There is even an in-game joke referencing idiot attorney extraordinaire Jack Thompson, who oh-so-cleverly phoned into NPR to voice his misguided attack on the game's content. Unfortunately, the gamer correspondent on the show made for pitiful defense. Gamers need to stop masturbating over the game's features and start talking about the issues intelligently.
It's ignorant to claim games can't incite violence. There is no way that that amount of violent exposure doesn't cause some level of aggressiveness or desensitization. Gamers need to accept that. Then they need to turn around and point out the double-edge sword that treats games as brainwashing kill trainers, but pretends violence in TV, film, comics, books, music, or any other medium is innocuous. Yes, GTA4 will end up in the hands of certain impressionable children, but you can't sue Take-Two for that, you have to blame the retailers. And frankly, they really can't, because game retailers have done a great job controlling sales to minors. Check out the FTC report yourself.
But since stupid lawyers want to reduce games to nothing but murder sims, I see nothing wrong with putting lawyers into games as nothing but sims to murder. After so many violent games, it's not like we have the free-will to think otherwise.
I haven't time to comment much on the economy recently, thanks to Super Smash Bros. Brawl and... oh who am I kidding... I didn't even do a portfolio postmortem for last year. We are clearly in a recession right now, something I predicted in 2005 after much research, and my wishes go out to everyone in the American workforce... except those in the game industry! We don't need it! We are recession-proof! Hah!
Well, predicted sounds arrogant... I didn't predict a recession, I just tried to point out the mountain of evidence that it would happen. It's no surprise to me that games are recession-proof, though. Entertainment in general follows different fundamentals than other industries. Games often get compared to film, but there are two key differences that have made us an industry that has begun to intimidate Hollywood in size.
There is a party game played called Werewolves, also known as Mafia. I've figured out a pretty strong strategy for villagers to win, but they have to work together, they have to trust each other, and trust logic of the system itself, because, after all, the game is just liars versus truth-tellers. The rule set that we played by is simple...
You, fair reader, must ask yourself. Was Jeff Gerstmann's review (above) of Kane & Lynch wrong? Was it unfair? Was it a justifiable reason for him to be to be fired from Gamespot after an offended Eidos snatched back stacks of advertising dollars with an angry yoinks? Probably not. But somehow, I don't feel the slightest sympathy for him. I'll tell you why his firing pleases me, and why it should please all those gamers who hope their medium is taking its rightful place among the world.
Criticism. What does it mean? Why does film, art, and music criticism surpass video game criticism? Because criticism, as an artform in and of itself, teaches you something about what it criticizes. It deconstructs the craftsmanship, the message, and the greater context of a work's role in the pantheon. Video game reviews, however, are nothing but paid opinions of what Steve adroitly described as "people who couldn't get into the game industry." Fanboys, backseat game designers, internet experts, and such forth.
Their reviews contribute little to the creation of a better game because these people have no experience working in games. On the other hand, music reviewers can play instruments, art critics can create art, and movie reviewers can have academic backgrounds. What do game reviewers have besides a subjective internal list of what they'd rather vege on a couch playing? I'm not ignoring the flaws of other forms of criticism, but let's be honest here, even at it's best, game reviews are bad. At the end of the day, games are designed for someone in particular, unlike movies which generally can be enjoyed by anyone when done well. Games are inherently fantasy fulfillment, not fantasy creation, and have to be judged on how well they satisfied gamers of a particular type. It is on that level where, for some, Bejeweled can be as good of a game as World of Warcraft.
Gamespot reviewers think that by arbitrarily demanding some games to have innovation, some games to just be fun, some games to be an "experience," whatever their pseudo-standard is, they are "raising the bar." Bullshit. Until there is a real literary quality in games that can be criticized, game journalism is just a recommendation to buy. We all know game advertisement pays for reviews, don't kid yourself. There isn't even anything wrong with that, and I bring up Penny Arcade reviews as an example of it done well. People are simply shopping for the review they need, and for your site to pretend it's creating a golden metric for an immature medium is ridiculous.
To those who want to go out and picket for Jeff, who think the review above sounds like something of senior editor quality at a major game mag, who think they're fighting the evil corporations who are "corrupting" this brilliant stuff with sponsorship, you've already lost. That shit ain't free, nor should it be. Ask yourself how any criticism is paid for. Then demand a higher standard. Abolish this bullshit point system.
Go with the Netflix 5-star system: hate it,
didn't like it,
Ultimately, the only two factors that matters for a game are fun and value. Game review snobs demean the whole industry, just like snobs in any other industry.
We've been working a lot recently, coming home to squeeze in what time we have left into some of the great titles out right now. I indulged in a week of the Hellgate London beta, which is my first Diablo-esque, and consequently was a virtual ambush of vacuous addictiveness.
Xstine and I have had some great games in Team Fortress 2, which I is part of the greatest game deal of the year, Orange Box. It's got the utterly surreal and anti-genre Portal, and Team Fortress itself is an excellent fast-paces team-based shooter that has ingenious visual design based off 50's commercial art. You can even play the levels with developer commentary, with behind-the-scenes design processes described in detail as you run around relevant parts of the world. Now that is a labor of love.
I also want to say that the character designs for each of the Team Fortress classes is especially well done, with each having unique body/weapons silouettes that are geared towards making them easy to read in the frenetic action. Characters have a concentration of lighting and color saturation in the chest area, and the shapes that the colors and lines form lead the eye to the chest, and by extension to the weapon the character is holding. For example, you have the medic class with a lab coat that opens out to form a V that points back up to his upper body. A tremendous amount of thought has gone into these character designs. My only regret with the game is that its lack of levels really limit the creativity of a team's class make-up.
So anyways, I'm working on my annual portfolio post-mortem. Here's to hoping Helicopter Ben keeps the market buoyed 'til the end of the year, as inflation has taken a backseat to the credit crunch as the big issue. In the meantime, I'll continue to fill my pre-bedtime hours with unhealthy doses of Puzzle Quest; it's mutation of mindless Bejeweled into a satisfying RPG-lite experience is way more playable than the unsummed parts would have you think.
I finished up Bioshock and it was quite a tour-de-force in game narrative, and deserves the kind of critique usually reserved for film and literature, even from the most ardent anti-"game-as-art" critics (read: Ebert). So I gave it a shot. Here is my effort at deconstructing the meaning of Bioshock.[/I]