Monthly Archives: February 2012

Unmanned by Molleindustria and Jim Munroe

Games with moral agendas can be hit or miss. Sometimes a game simply wants to be played, but other times it wants to tell you something explicitly (see McDonald’s Video Game). This approach can be counterproductive. If a game gets too wrapped up in its own perceived importance, it can neglect the subtlety and awareness it takes to communicate an effective message.

In Unmanned, you play as a man who remotely operates an armed aerial vehicle, capable of dispensing explosive death from a comfortable chair and a safe distance. The game opens with two scenes presented in a split-screen fashion. On the left is a sleeping man with blonde hair. On the right, you control a waking version of this man with mouse clicks as he runs across a sparse, brown field littered with goats.  As he runs, angry people chase him: a man with a dark beard, a figure whose face is covered, a child with a stick. If they catch up to the blonde man, they physically assault him, and he covers his head. If you manage to stay out of reach, the man begins flapping his arms, turns into a plane and flies away. Soon the dream ends, and the sleeping man wakes. Now, you’re standing in front of a mirror, shaving (don’t cut yourself!) and deciding how you feel about the approaching workday. Does “Another day” equate to “another terrorist dead,” “another dollar,” or “another step closer to my grave?”

Unmanned uses cutscenes, or non-playable narrative, in a way that I’m surprised more developers haven’t thought of. Instead of trying to make cutscenes more gamey by adding QT events, they simply allow the scene to unfold next to a separate, but related, minigame that reinforces whatever point the scene is trying to make. You’re often asked to switch between two screens, performing some menial action on one side and switching to the other to advance the story. This process caused me to cut myself shaving more times than I’d like to admit.

A sort of dramatic irony emerges from the way these scenes are arranged. Later, after he gets off work, the man plays some modern military shooter with his son. Here he is, unwinding after a day of controlling a real-life killing machine on a screen by killing fake people on a screen. You control the avatar in the game they’re playing, which mimics shooters like Call of Duty in a point-and-click fashion (pretty meta, eh?), while a conversation about death, weapons and war plays out between the man and his son.

One of the things I found most interesting about Unmanned is that it doesn’t so much focus on the larger political and ethical implications of UAVs, though it touches on them. The narrative is centered on a single character, and most of the conflicts are presented as internal manifestations. The game is poignant and provoking, and the simple split-screen presentation cleverly illustrates the blurring discrepancy between thinking or talking about something and physically making something happen, a tension that is very much at the heart of the game. Unmanned raises some dark questions: What is a man thinking or talking about while he controls a machine that can end human life? How does it make him feel? What is killing like when most of the physical sensation of the act is removed?  In one of the dialogue trees, the man describes his day as “boring,” and most of the game’s interactive components are intentionally monotonous. The protagonist is obviously conflicted about doing his killing from a safe distance, but would he feel better about it if he was actually sitting inside of the plane? I can’t say, but I can say that Unmanned left me feeling like there’s something cold about the distance.

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Donna: Avenger of Blood by Blazej Dzikowski

I’m a bit of a failure when it comes to point-and-click adventures. I didn’t grow up with them, so the interface usually confuses me. I’m always using my hands when I should be using my feet or using thoughtspeak when I should be using wordspeak. Many of my sessions with adventure games dissolve into frustrated click-fests with no rhyme or reason to them. I turn into a caveman, banging my fists against a wall, hoping it will move.

Even as far as adventure games go, I found the mechanics in Donna: Avenger of Blood oppressive. In fact, everything about it–the environments, the color palette, the puzzles–it’s all oppressive. I got stuck on the first puzzle. THE FIRST PUZZLE. A few minutes in, and I was already trying to find a walkthrough. I’m ashamed to admit I failed at that too. Needless to say, I was discouraged, but I was also irreparably curious and intrigued. Say what you will of Donna, but she leaves a striking first impression. Mental screenshots kept haunting me: Donna’s pale form, standing naked against the dark backdrop of a seedy alleyway; the jagged edges, jarring animations and bleak grays of some city in Eastern Europe. Avenger of Blood had stirred something inside of me. I would return to her, and damnit, I would persevere (For a while, at least).

There’s this overbearing theme of disgust that hangs over the writing, the aesthetic, even the puzzles. In the first few minutes, Donna lures a rat from a dumpster with a dead pigeon someone left hanging outside of their door. Then, she eats the rat alive to regain a bit of health. Upon examining a telephone in a sleazy motel, Donna muses “I bet the receiver smells.” Then, when she examines the bed sheets, she considers the “gallons of semen” that must have been left by previous inhabitants. Donna is disgusted with society. Society is disgusted with her. There’s this almost glitzy portrayal of vampires in modern, pop interpretations of the genre. Donna and the world she inhabits, on the other hand, have a striking beauty about them, and a compelling, sensual energy. But it’s a dark, fearsome sort of beauty, and there’s definitely nothing cute or glitzy about it.

You’re given hardly any indication of what you’re supposed to do when you start out. (I’m almost beginning to expect this of my favorite freeware games.) Donna has an entire skill set that I was completely unaware of at first because it hides behind an unobtrusive tab in the inventory menu. Basically, Donna is capable of just about anything, but only in the right circumstances. She can read minds, manipulate and eavesdrop. She’s superstrong and superfast (for a human, not for a vampire). But you can’t use any of Donna’s skills if her thirst for blood is too powerful, and you will inevitably be put in a position where she’s running on fumes but doesn’t have any immediate access to fresh blood. Donna’s skill set provides an interesting juxtaposition, as you’re given this extremely capable protagonist, but you don’t feel very capable because the odds are so completely stacked against her. Playing as Donna, I essentially had superpowers, but I still felt powerless.

Avenger of Blood was in development for a decade, and it shows in the exhaustive sense of detail. The care that has been taken in Donna’s characterization absolutely melts my heart, and in spite of all its darkness, the writing has a sense of humor about it. You can look up words or phrases in a Bible you find in the motel Donna uses as her headquarters. If you search “vampire,” Donna thinks “Nah, I’m sure there aren’t too many good words about us in the Bible.” If you select the “talk” command and click on a screwdriver in the mall shop, you don’t get some mundane text like “I don’t think that will work.” Donna simply says “Hello screwdriver.” If you examine a poster bearing political propaganda, it makes Donna anxious, and her anxiety prevents you from progressing.

Donna likes to have a smoke as she considers her next move. You could purchase the lighter and cigarettes with the money you found in that safe, or you could just use vampire Jedi mind tricks and make the clerk give them to you. Smoke a cig, and you’ll be awarded a hint (For other games that use cigs well, see Cart Life). The narrative often alerts you to significant events by offering close-ups of Donna’s face. At the park, she roars and bares her fangs as she cuts down her prey in the black of night. Alone, in a shitty hotel room, Donna blinks a few times. A tear runs down her cheek as she allows herself a moment of weakness, remembering her dead sweetheart. Later, I examine a necklace that I found in a safe and discover that Donna doesn’t like wearing things on her neck.

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Burn | The Cat That Got the Milk

The Cat That Got the Milk starts you off in a straight-lined, sight-seeing expedition and eases you into this wondrous, colorful cacophony of jutting geometric walls and claustrophobic corridors. You are a tiny shape in a sea of bigger shapes. You control movement in two directions. The game is fast-paced and brash. The transitions between levels happen quickly, and the delay between failing and restarting is almost nonexistent. Later in the game (about eight minutes), levels become challenging and demand repeated restarts. In The Cat That Got the Milk, there is no real opportunity to observe your environment as a static entity. You are constantly in motion, so your impression is of a thing that is alive.

In Burn, you are a phoenix, flying down an endless corridor towards death. Blue barrels slow you down, red barrels speed you up. Burn doesn’t limit controls to the same extent The Cat That Got the Milk does, as you can move in four directions, and you’re allowed three different power-ups. But the spirit is similar, and the lose condition is the same. When you stop, you fail. Burn quickly speeds up to a blistering pace, once you manage to get on a good run. In addition, it’s fairly difficult to stop completely because the corridor becomes easier to navigate as you start to slow down. The game encourages you to maintain motion. Drums increase to a fever-pitch when you reach top speeds and reduce to a solemn stomp as you slow your pace. There’s no score, per say, though a number keeps track of the distance you’ve traveled. But I didn’t really care about any numbers. The aesthetic is what pushed me to continue. I wanted to see the strange, alluring corridor rushing past. I wanted the drums to speed up again. I wanted to achieve perpetual motion. I wanted to describe the experience to you in dramatic, first-person statements. I’ll stop now.

Most games I play these days assume I want control of every aspect of the protagonist’s movement, but in this day and age, a bit of limitation is a wonderfully refreshing thing. In pretty much every Triple-A console game I can think of, I have to control the character and the camera simultaneously just to move around, and if I stop moving the sticks around, the protagonist stops moving as well. The Cat That Got the Milk and Burn assume some sense of motion regardless of player input, and they limit the player’s control. You would think that a game constantly in motion would have trouble bringing its aesthetic to the player’s attention. But in these two examples, I found that the aesthetic demanded my attention because it was so closely entwined with the gameplay. In both of the aforementioned games, you work against the game environments, in a kind of yin-and-yang fashion, to create a specific aesthetic experience that is much more powerful than it would have been if the mechanics allowed the player to stop moving.

These games remind us that obstructing certain elements of control augments the significance of the control the player does have, and constant motion forces the player to consider game aesthetic as something dynamic, rather than static. I find that I’m much more capable of taking in the architecture of neighborhood houses or the colors of changing seasons when I’m riding in the passenger seat than when I’m driving. By remaining in motion, but relinquishing control of every aspect of motion, you absorb your environment differently. In Burn and The Cat That Got the Milk, the environments hurl themselves at you. They are friendly obstacles–explicit aspects of gameplay. Screenshots have no chance of properly conveying the artistic dynamism of these games (nor do my own words). Go play.

Notes: The Cat That Got the Milk was done by Ollie Clarke, Jon Mann, Chris Randle and Helana Santos. You can buy souvenirs from them to show your support. Burn was created by Benn Lockyer, Sunny Koda and Jarrod Lowery for The Global Game Jam in one weekend, in response to this theme.

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Foldit

Dev’s site

“If you practice violin for seven hours, everyone will be impressed. If you play a video game for seven hours, no one will be impressed.” I’m trying to remember what I was playing when my dad said that to me in my pre-adolescence. It was a beautiful little turn-based JRPG thing that had a card game aesthetic. SNES, I think. I loved those sorts of games growing up because I could impose my own implications on the narrative in a way that I couldn’t when I was reading prose. There was already an existing story and characters, but there was also this numerical metaphor that allowed me to throw off the childhood shackles of inhibition and weakness and save the world. I’m not knocking my father. He’s a far better man than I am or ever will be. He didn’t forbid me from playing the game. His approach was much more tactical and effective. He made a logical argument that appealed to one of my most basic desires as a human being—to be respected by my fellow man. He just wanted me to get off my ass and take a few precious minutes out of my Saturday to practice scales, in hopes that I would sound slightly less offensive at my next violin recital. Slightly, mind you. Less like a dying tomcat and more like a sick feline.

But my well-meaning father was wrong on two accounts. Firstly, there are many other brooding souls like myself out there who would have been severely impressed with young me’s capacity for marathon gaming (Though many of them would also be dismissive. “Only seven hours, you say?”). Secondly, there are the games that I was playing as a child, and then there is Foldit, which has drawn players who are now considered impressive in more than just gaming circles. You probably already knew about Foldit because it’s been around since 2008. Since discovering the game for myself, I’ve been perusing its media coverage of the past few years. I’ve never had much of a head for science (It’s all magic to me), but I can’t stop thinking about this game.

One way to engage a player is to make him feel like he’s saving the world. Another is to tell him that by playing a game, he actually is. Foldit’s website essentially states that people who play the game can help scientists achieve a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and AIDS. Though I’ve seen no real indication that Foldit will directly lead to any sort of cure, even I, in all my glorious scientific ignorance, can grasp that it has enormously exciting potential. Potential that is almost too exciting. It sounds like one of those idealistic, Utopian fantasies, exploited by the media for the sake of headlines. “Average Joes Best Brainy Scientists.” But I can’t help but allow the cynic in me to be tinged with a color of guarded, hopeful optimism.

Two weeks ago, Cart Life gave me the sweet jolt of adrenaline that I needed to start this blog. Hofmeier’s game was the jumping off point that justified my premise and got me really excited to write about games again. I wrote about Cart Life because it made me think about my life and what it means. Foldit makes me think about death. Not because of its mechanics but because of its implications. I believe that, ideally, the way we die should do justice to the way we lived. The purpose of the game, as far as I understand it, is to adjust the parts of a protein until its structure is as stable as you can get it. Proteins present themselves as three-dimensional cellular trees with amino acid branches, connected by blue and white lines that represent hydrogen bonds. There’s a lot of other stuff too, and your score, which always seems to be in the eight or nine thousands, shows you when you’ve achieved the desired stability. Last night I played through the first few intro levels, which were ridiculously easy. When I reached the eighth puzzle, I got completely stuck. I kept making adjustments, but it seemed like every move I made demolished my score, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not make sense of this unintelligible mass of jagged lines and red circles. And I was still in the tutorial. I felt like an idiot. I wasn’t having much fun.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to die of Alzheimer’s as my grandfather did, with bits of my memory falling out like old gray hairs or flakes of dead skin. It’s the sort of morbid fantasy that rears its head when something reminds me of my own mortality. It’s one of the worst ways I can think of to die because it threatens to erase the very things I have to live for: The people I love and the memories I have made with them; the books I read; the games I play; the songs I hear; my own potential to create, informed by all of the aforementioned. If I don’t have any of this left, who is to say I am still alive? If I am missing even one part, who‘s to say I am me and not someone else—someone I wouldn’t even recognize?

Today I restarted the exact puzzle that had proven so frustrating the night before, and everything fell perfectly into place. I had barely done anything before the game rewarded me with its funny, multi-colored, star fireworks and educational-sounding background music. I still don’t really understand what I’m doing, but the game tells me I have progressed. Actually, these proteins are quite nice to look at, and the bubble-popping sound that accompanies my removal of structural “voids” in the protein makes me smile. Wait a second, I can freeze these parts of the backbone in place to maintain the hydrogen bonds, and then focus on the branches that require more attention without ruining my score. The tune that plays when I shuffle the protein is strangely comforting. A lot of this game is automated, but I can basically do whatever I want. It’s accessible, but open-ended, and the range of tools is astounding. Today, I’ve been playing Foldit for a while now, and I’m having quite a bit of fun.

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