Monthly Archives: March 2012

Cave Story, John Cleese and the Creative Process

The cave has developed into a symbol that simultaneously represents romantic, childlike wonder and a melancholy, even ominous, loneliness. For me, the first few moments of Cave Story are the most affecting. A child stands alone in a cavern. I make him jump some spikes, then run under some bats. I find a heart locked up in tube-shaped container. I set it free. I pilfer some guy’s gun while he’s sleeping. After a few minutes, I wonder how long the boy had been in that cave. Probably a long time. He must be hungry.

In those first few screens, before the aforementioned pilfering takes place, the boy is defenseless. His vulnerability is illuminated like pale skin under a relentless, beating sun. Somehow, this makes the prospect of pressing forward all the more enticing. Within its introductory moments, Cave Story successfully taps into those two disparate manifestations of the cave symbol: the unsettling melancholy of isolation and the excitement of exploring uncharted depths. It really nails the tone that I think most of us crave in a game’s introduction. That feeling of being thrust into an entirely unfamiliar setting. I wrote a song about the game before I even finished playing it. I recruited my sister to draw her interpretation of the song, which resulted in the picture above. Of course, I would soon find out that the boy is actually a robot, so he doesn’t need to eat, and the rabbits are actually called something else that’s not “rabbits.” In the end, my song doesn’t really make much sense, considering its source. Nonetheless, the creative seed was planted, and all it took was about an hour of play.

The Two Modes

In this inspiring lecture, Monty Python’s John Cleese cites studies done in the sixties and seventies by the psychologist, Donald Mackinnon, on creativity. According to one of the comments below the video, Cleese’s lecture is over two decades old, but I think it’s one of those few things that is truly timeless. Cleese deftly aligns his personal observations of creative people in action with Mackinnon’s research, which found that creative folk were no more intelligent than non-creative people. They “had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood, a way of operating…Mackinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play (starts around 5:20).  Framing his argument with Mackinnon’s research, Cleese asserts that creative people generally operate in two different and distinct modes: “open” and “closed.”

By the closed mode, I mean the mode that we’re in most of the time when we’re at work. We have a feeling inside us that there’s much to be done, and we have to get on with it if we’re gonna get through it all. It’s an active, probably slightly anxious mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable.” As I devoured Cleese’s words, I thought of how I felt when I played Cart Life. Time moves quickly, and it doesn’t stop. Profits are incremental. Melanie tires quickly. I have to sell enough coffee in time for her court date, so she can keep her child. Cart Life, by implementing strict time constraints and forcing you to persevere in the face of repetitive tasks, makes its rewards of exploration and emotional connection more meaningful. This sounds to me like Cleese’s closed mode.

By contrast, the open mode is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful, in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor, which always accompanies a wider perspective, and consequently more playful. It’s a mode in which curiosity for its own sake can operate. Because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.” This probably applies most directly to something like Knytt, but it’s also how I felt when I played Cave Story. The game isn’t really open in the way we typically throw the word at games. It’s a fairly linear platform shooter. And yes, Cave Story provides clear goals, but it lets you forget them and shove them into the back of your mind. It lets you see the cave. It doesn’t tell you how to do anything when you start, so mechanical discovery accompanies aesthetic discovery, which allows the pleasure of learning a new language. Furthermore, the mechanics encourage creative play. As I progressed, I ended up switching guns sometimes as a direct response to the game’s stimuli, but other times I would opt for the strategy that brought the most interesting results. I can use the bubble gun to play defensively, but only if I’m quick and careful. Or I could opt for the sword because it only takes a couple good shots, but I better not miss. Cave Story’s gunplay provides immediate feedback to your performance, leveling up and down as you take damage and dish it out. There’s no obligation to adhere to a single strategy.

A State of Play

As I continued to absorb Cleese’s lecture, I kept thinking that the terms we use to categorize games (linear, open-world, etc.) align closely with these “moods” or “way[s] of operating” that Cleese discusses. Is this game linear or open-world? Are you playfully exploring, or are you ticking things off a list so you can get to the point? This is oversimplification of course, but it stands to reason that gameplay can facilitate a creative mood, but not all gameplay is (or even should be) creative. An achievements system, for example, seems to rely heavily on the closed mode. Chasing a platinum trophy might force you respond to a game differently, but it doesn’t really make you play creatively. It just gives you the satisfaction of completing something that’s possibly challenging, but undeniably completable, like washing dishes or doing your taxes. This sort of play sounds boring when you tell someone about it, but it’s not a bad thing, and sometimes a clear, achievable list of goals is exactly what someone needs. As, Cleese says “It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent (like thinking). And it’s also easier to do little things that we know we can do than it is to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

When people talk about their best gameplay experiences, they often turn to relatable experiences. “I played Fallout 3 without killing anything except the Radroach in the beginning!” “Oh yeah? I played through Fallout 2 as an idiot.” I don’t mean relatable in the sense that we can relate to them, but relatable in the sense that certain experiences lend well to narration, and the players themselves are often instrumental in making these moments in a game’s narrative interesting.  Through gameplay, the player engages in a creative process, and the result is an addition to the narrative, which can either highlight a game’s strengths or spotlight its breaking points. Cleese says that creativity is impossible in the closed mode, but I think his overarching discussion suggests that creating a finished product, or molding creativity into something tangible, requires both modes. Theoretically, if you remain in the open mode all the time, nothing substantial or polished will ever get done. But if you constantly remain in the closed mode, you’ll never create anything interesting. It makes sense that engaging gameplay makes use of both modes, as well. In the Fallout series especially, you’re checking things off of a list, but only to give yourself an excuse to explore every nook of a fascinating universe. You’re thinking “I don’t just want to play this game, I want to play this game in a way that’s interesting. I want to craft a unique experience.” That’s the creative process at work.

Musings

Too often we get stuck in the closed mode,” says Cleese. What I like about being a barista, or writing, or making music is the sense that the alteration of some minute detail can create an entirely different experience. But most of the time, while I’m at work I get stuck in the closed mode, thinking about how many dishes I have left to wash instead of allowing myself the time to free-pour a pristine latte. Similarly, I think we get bogged down with games sometimes because there’s simply too much to do. What was once an inviting ocean of exploration becomes an endless list of chores. It probably all has a lot to do with how a game introduces itself. If a game immediately tells you how to do everything and then asks you to go through the motions, then isn’t it also instructing you how to play? Does front-loading a tutorial encourage a player to remain in a closed mode? As Cave Story shows us, those first few moments can make all the difference.

For a long time I’ve thought that games give us release through explorable narrative. I know they can provoke an emotional response or intellectual stimulation, but ultimately, I didn’t think they could help me create something outside of criticism, since I’ve never made games myself. Now, I think that games can help us think creatively, and thus help us create. Creativity  solves the problem of the absence of art, and gameplay is essentially creative (though sometimes this aspect is less emphasized) problem solving.

Lately, I’ve been trying to think of the creative process as more of an exploration than a dogmatically structured exercise, and I think it’s made me more productive. When I’m recording, instead of trying to find the perfect sound, I search for an interesting sound and then accept it for what it is. Of course, then PLAYTIME IS OVER, and it’s time to switch to the closed mode and shape that sound into a larger, somewhat coherent structure. I’ve also been trying to view gameplay, in general, as more of a creative process, as I did intuitively with Cave Story, and I’ve found my experiences on that front more rewarding as well. Of course, this approach can’t work for every type of game, and ultimately, both the creative process and gameplay are different for everyone. So it’s probably best to take all of these words with a grain of salt. And then forget them. Except the ones that Cleese said.

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Traitor by Jonas Kyratzes

“Mines may seem like any other weapon, but they can cause tragedies a long time after they were deployed, sometimes long after the conflicts they were deployed for have faded away into history.”

That’s a quote from one of the factions in Traitor, Jonas Kyratzes’ recently released shooter, a game that he calls “casual.”

Reinventing the wheel isn’t always necessary when it comes to providing something fresh. In many cases, all you need to reinvigorate a proven formula is a shift in focus. Traitor is a shoot’em up that doesn’t throw excessive hordes of enemies and explosions at you. It doesn’t let you shoot a million bullets per second. What it does provide is context for what you’re shooting at and a carefully conceived universe. Nothing gets me excited about shooting stuff like the prospect of overthrowing a tyrannical empire. A funny thing about context in shoot’em ups: when it’s not there, you might not miss it so much, but when it’s there, it makes all the difference.

In addition, Traitor‘s mechanics reinforce the idea that you’re an underdog, trying to shake the iron grip of an established superpower. Upgrades are expensive and provide incremental advantages, and dodging is just as important as shooting. For a majority of the missions, there’s no conceivable way you can blow up everything on the screen, so you’ve got to keep your wits about you. On one particular mission, I recall gliding across a map full of imposing asteroids, which I had no hope of destroying with my meager weapons. This sort of mission provided an adrenaline rush equal to that of taking out a bulky boss ship, as I was forced to rely on reflexes alone to reach its conclusion. Though it’s possible to succeed against many opponents by playing a game of chicken–lining up with an enemy and getting the finishing shot off just before the imminent collision–I often preferred to take the more pacifist (cowardly?) approach and simply get out of the way, biding my time before I had to face off with the big guns. I found this tactic especially effective early on, before I got my hands on any shiny, new upgrades.

Combat is balanced and tight, the aesthetic is a neon dream and the soundtrack is space candy that delights the eardrums. In addition, the variety of enemy ships and explorable territory makes Traitor a decidedly robust offering to the browser gods. This game is exceptionally well done. But perhaps most importantly, it gives you real motives, providing an innovative, refreshing experience in the guise of a run-of-the-mill shoot’em up. Kyratzes made me realize that context is what I’ve been wanting from this sort of game, and he gave it to me before I even thought to ask for it.

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Connections by Mindful XP

It takes effort to maintain the meaningful connections we establish with people, and that effort is something we can control. But it often feels as if don’t have much control when it comes to certain relationships fading into something that’s best described in the past tense. Until now, I haven’t played any shooters that attempt to address this sensation, but then most shooters don’t attempt to address much of anything except, well, shooting stuff. And that’s just fine, but Connections is different.

Under the instructions for controls, the game says “left click to link,” not “left click to shoot.” The game doesn’t even call shooting “shooting.” Our understand of this game as a “shooter” comes only from the mechanical language this type of game has developed. What you shoot in Connections are “links” that establish relationships with people outside of your family, and maintain the relationships you already have with family members. Friends and family members are represented by colorful, animated paint blotches on a soft, canvas-like background. Your ability to maintain connections and form new ones is contested by angry, red triangles that follow you around, sapping the life from any links you’ve managed to establish.

I wouldn’t say I found Connections entertaining. I found it more stressful than fun, which I think is a pretty ambitious take on a genre that typically places a great deal of emphasis on adrenaline-pumping aesthetic and gameplay.  Trying to maintain the social bonds in Connections is like trying to talk to someone when you no longer have anything to talk about. The controls are heavy, and those glaring, red triangles are resilient and persistent. Trying to win is like trying to elude time’s iron grasp.

If you stray too far from someone for too long, you’ll lose that link, which lessens your ability to fend off enemies and forge new social links. You can defeat enemies, not only by shooting them, but by simply running into them, which allows you to sort of subvert the genre and only shoot friendly targets. I found that when I branched out from my initial circle of parents and siblings, I was pursued by a bunch of enemies, so I was more inclined to save ammo for establishing new links. But when I tried to constantly form new relationships, I quickly became overextended and lost connections just as quickly as I gained them, getting nowhere. When I elected to stick close to my family for most of the game, I was more inclined to defend the relationships I already had, using my stock of ammo to fend off assailants.

Neither strategy really felt more effective than the other, and both are equally frustrating. It’s almost as if I wanted to put the game aside, but I felt an obligation to see it through and take something away from those connections over which I had toiled. There’s a limited sense of control over the rate at which your relationships fade away, and the resulting experience is powerful and provocative. In a sense, Connections is sort of an anti-shooter because you don’t know why you’re shooting at anything in the first place. And you don’t really know how long you’ll be able to hold on, but you know you have to try.

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A Song of Death and Failure

You know, Roger Travis got me thinkin’ when he said “[George R. R.] Martin plays the stories of the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Targaryens, and I play Skyrim.” For me, gaming and writing scratch a similar itch. Maybe these processes have more in common than I had previously considered. I just started A Feast For Crows, the fourth book in Martin’s gritty fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Travis’ article struck a chord with me, but Martin’s writing makes me think of a different game than the Elder Scrolls‘ admittedly engrossing epic. It makes me think of Dwarf Fortress. Now you may be thinking I’m just looking for an excuse to talk about Martin and Dwarf Fortress in the same breath, and you may be right, but you may also be a bit presumptuous, and at least I’m not the first person to try and pull this shit.

Though I’m not completely caught up on Martin’s series, I can already tell that it shares more than a medieval fantasy backdrop with the titan of freeware titles. Both Martin and DF audaciously embrace mortality and impermanence. Martin isn’t afraid to kill off characters. Dwarf Fortress isn’t afraid to have those dwarves that you’ve spent weeks looking after slaughter each other because you temporarily ran out of booze, and it’s not afraid to kick over that cool castle you just built because it knows you’ll come crawling back anyway. There’s a shared fixation on the idea of meticulously setting up a chessboard only to knock the pieces over. Both Martin and DF understand that death can enrich a narrative journey. It takes an ending to bring about new beginnings, and it is only through loss that we learn to appreciate what we have.

Dwarf Fortress, understandably, has drawn the attention of academics. In his 2009 Masters thesis, Dwarf Fortress Gathers At The Statue And Attends A Party , Joshua Diaz discusses the “narrative architecture” of the simulator and draws attention to the communal narratives it has produced. Diaz calls narrative in Dwarf Fortress an “organizational strategy.” It’s something the player actively uses and pursues during gameplay, in order to process the game. Diaz also compares play with authorship: “…gameplay is both distinct from but related to the act of reading as well as the act of writing . The creative investigation and exploration, the forming of goals and strategies, and the dependence on material and technical affordances for their execution, are qualities that apply to players in both ludic and narrative frames.” The only reward that matters in Dwarf Fortress, with all of its complex simulation algorithms, is narrative. It is this potential for a compelling player narrative that drives the gameplay. When you play Dwarf Fortress, you’re given a deep geographical and cultural setting to work with, but it’s up to you to tell a rousing tale.

I can’t really imagine anyone playing and enjoying Dwarf Fortress without first consulting this article, but then I’m not someone who was familiar with its predecessors, Rogue and Nethack. I would have had trouble comprehending the Wikipedia entries that are about the game, had I not first consulted that specific article. DF is maddeningly opaque, to the point that you almost can’t play the thing without first consulting the literature that surrounds it. The very things that make DF maddening make it so utterly engrossing and relatable. Not relatable in the sense that you can relate to it, but in the sense that you can (and want to) narrate your experience with it. At this very moment, I’m resisting the urge to tell you all about my first fortress, Orbsstilled, now 125 strong. Sure, I want to tell you all about the road I’m building, and the stonecrafts I’m crafting, and the bedrooms I’m furnishing, and the mines I’m digging, and the militia I’m training, and the goods I’m trading, and the economy I’m building, and the animals I’m slaughtering, but I WON’T. I will not allow this site to devolve into the meaningless minutiae of my foray into a procedurally generated fantasy realm, just so I can play Dwarf Fortress forever and tell people “I’m writing about it.” (As of yesterday, I’ve started keeping a private journal to document the most pertinent happenings of Orbsstilled. I’m writing it in the voice of the current mayor, Kikrost Ustanmorul, who may or may not be a reliable narrator.)

Martin has said that he likes to mine history for the good bits. Dwarf Fortress simulates a fictional history and tells the player to do this very thing: “Strike the earth!” What Martin does with literary devices, DF does with a bunch of complex algorithms and a significant chunk of player authorship. I never liked math in school because I preferred stories. Dwarf Fortress has proven that math and humans can co-author compelling narrative. DF doesn’t just generate levels and loot like many of its predecessors. It creates “entire continents, including geographical, historical and social information” (Diaz, 17). And it does it with an experience that is strangely intimate and personal.

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. When you play Dwarf Fortress, you just die. Or more specifically, you try to die spectacularly. DF invites you to present failure as something beautiful. Since you know you’re going to lose, you’ll want to orchestrate the most elaborate loss possible. This is how the game inspires engaging player-created narrative, like Boatmurdered. As your fortress becomes more sprawling and elaborate and you become more attached, your anticipation of its inevitable fall grows. The game builds you up only to knock you down. Martin does a similar thing with emotional attachment. He allows you to become invested in certain characters, only to erase them unceremoniously just as you start to view them as permanent fixtures. 

I guess you could, theoretically, “win” at Dwarf Fortress by playing conservatively, maintaining a subsistence economy, avoiding expansion or exploration. This approach would probably discourage migrants and allow you to survive on a really small harvest. But I think this is the only way you could really lose at Dwarf Fortress because you would kill everything that’s interesting about it. The game encourages you to push boundaries and overextend your reach. Storytelling is what makes DF compelling, and it is placed largely in the hands of the player. The game gives you a history to work with, but it’s up to you to mine its potential and make it interesting. In this sense, narrative is DF‘s most important game mechanic. I don’t yet have my own beautiful failure to boast of, but I plan to press on until I do. I’ll continue to strike the earth until the gods strike me down, and when they do it will be a most glorious demise. Winter is coming, and when Orbsstilled falls, the bards will write songs.

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Why Freeware Games Matter

Freeware is freedom. Its resources are limited, but its only master is design. If a freeware game is bogged down by excessive content, then this is a product of its own vision, not consumers’ pocketbooks or executive greed. Freeware is the Cave Story that a man fawns over in his spare time for five years. It is Dwarf Fortress, challenging, rather than stymieing the potential of the human imagination. It is Cart Life, an empathetic artist‘s heartbreaking, yet hopeful, realism. These developers, nay artists, deserve to be paid for their work. But one of the reasons their work excels is they have made games that needed to be made rather than sold. They carried on, though they were never guaranteed a dime of support. There are so many component parts expected of modern games—music, art, writing, oh yeah and the “game” part—I’m surprised anything coherent ever gets done. A freeware game of substance is nothing short of a remarkable triumph of the human spirit.

Most commercial games would have greater impact (and would probably be more fun) if they took a fraction of the time to play through. I spent some time reviewing Triple A games, and in that span of time I reviewed some clunkers and some gems. My experiences, regardless of each game’s competence, all shared a common thread. As soon as I got whatever it was that the game wanted to say to me, its message was dampened,squashed even, by hours and hours of excessive content. I still play Triple A games (currently enjoying Final Fantasy XIII-2 in a terrible sort of way), but I don’t often write about them anymore or even play them all the way through. In general, commercial games are bogged down by more content than they need because that’s the standard.

The music industry’s loudness war is a similar phenomenon. Consumers expect music to maintain a consistent volume across an ever-increasing variety of devices, and publishers want their tracks to be just a bit louder and have just a bit more punch than the other songs on any given playlist. To keep up, sound engineers are forced to use more compression, so they can continue to boost volume and sell albums. As a result, music production, in general, has grown louder but less dynamic over the years. The commercial games industry’s equivalent of the loudness war is a sort of “hours war.” Commercial games are expensive because games are becoming more and more expensive to make. Since big-budget games are so expensive, players expect them to take up a certain, quantifiable amount of time. It rounds out to about a fifteen-twenty hour (or thereabouts) minimum time slot for a sixty-dollar price tag. But even that isn’t enough, really. According to consumers and critics, a game should ideally feel infinite and unlimited. In order for you to get your money’s worth, it should have the potential to take up more time than you have. Fortunately, the loudness war seems to be losing steam, but I’m not so optimistic about the hours war.

At first the idea seems strange, but the appeal of purchasing content we might never see is understandable. We’re just trying to stretch out the time that Electron Dance appropriately deemed “those honeymoon hours,” in which a game still feels like an exciting expedition into the unknown. Skyrim is one of those games that seems like it’s meant to be played forever. Isn’t it strange that we expect games that are meant to be played forever? It’s kind of exhausting to think about from a consumer’s point of view. And from a developer’s point of view, it must be pretty limiting in an “arrow to the knee” sort of way. Why should a game spend a ton of resources on wearing out its welcome instead of just ending and probably making a more meaningful impact? Skyrim fills its world with a staggering number of locales and NPCs. It takes a few minutes to remember where you are and where you should be going, about an hour to get your bearings in any given play session, about a day to make any discernible progress. Much of this time will be spent rifling through an inventory screen.

On the other hand, a strong argument can be made that games provide experiences that aren’t meant to be finished, as they allow us to continuously pursue expertise in a certain skill set. Playing Dwarf Fortress, a freeware title by two brilliant brothers, is sort of like pursuing fluency in an alien language. When you first look at the screen, you don’t see what you’re meant to see. After hours of patience and persistence (and access to the internet so you can get to the game’s wiki), the setting and its inhabitants gradually start to seep into the mind’s eye. Dwarf Fortress is another game that has the potential to be played (and possibly developed) forever. Nonetheless, it has a clear beginning and end. In fact, with its gigantic procedurally generated fantasy realms, it provides endless beginnings and endings. Because no matter how many clever strategies you implement, you will lose, and your fortress will fall. Dwarf Fortress is a phoenix of a game, with the capacity to enthrall over and over and over again, thrilling a player’s devoted imagination in fresh, wondrous ways with every rebirth. This game exists because two visionaries have devoted their lives to it. In a commercial setting, with a mandated development time and release date, it would have been an entirely different entity. By dismissing modern graphics, the developers have freed themselves to focus their attention on the game’s capacity for simulation. The result is a new standard for game mechanics and the transformation of keyboard characters into a sort of high art. Dwarf Fortress is an ever-evolving creature of artistic energy and technical prowess. It is a life’s great work.

It is worth saying that independent game development has already offered an answer to the time-sink problem by providing smaller, more thoughtful, titles at a lower price point. In addition, indie titles are practically given away periodically, bundled together and sold at a minimum as low as a few dollars. Similarly, mobile games offer an opposite end to the fifteen-hour minimum spectrum, but this development market has its own limiting burdens to bear. Mobile game developers are encouraged to provide instantly gratifying experiences that can be picked up and put down in a matter of seconds, so tons of people will throw a dollar their way. Of course, there’s always room for an explosion of innovative flair (like Sword & Sworcery EP) that transcends expectations.

It is important to purchase games, if one can afford to, because it is important to support those who make games for a living. Freeware compliments and enriches the commercial games industry, but it cannot displace it. However, it is also important to experience art for art’s sake, and freeware is just that. Paradoxically, it is both easier and more difficult for freeware to reach its audience. We inevitably engage with purchases differently than we do with something that simply presents itself to us. By spending money on something, we have already committed the time of our labor. To match this commitment, we feel an obligation to spend an adequate amount of leisure time before we dismiss this purchase and move on to something else. A freeware game, on the other hand, has a smaller window of time in which to prove itself. Without the prior monetary commitment, the player feels no obligation to enjoy it, so it is more easily dismissed. Sometimes it’s important to step back and remind ourselves that there are things worth paying attention to that won’t cost us anything more than a bit of our time. We are so unbelievably lucky.

(As for supporting developers, Bay 12 Games constantly works on Dwarf Fortress and accepts financial support. Newer versions of Cave Story are now available on multiple platforms. Cart Life has paid versions that contain additional content.)

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