Monthly Archives: April 2012

Thematically Thrown Together

I’ve been sifting through Ludum Dare 23’s haystack of games. Indulging at random, I haven’t made much of a dent in the 1,400-plus catalog, but I’ve been having some fun thinking about theme and how it works itself into game design. Ludum Dare games are an interesting species: so many half-baked ideas, feverishly realized, trudging onward through sleep deprivation and frustration to a relative state of completion. It’s even fun digging into the broken entries and trying to decipher what the developer must have been getting at. It really is a window into this chaotic, collective game design soul. It’s like getting to listen to an album before it’s properly mixed and mastered, or maybe even before most of the songs are finished. There’s not much polish, but the idea is still there. The wide range of quality in these games must hinge on a number of different factors: coding ability, artwork availability, motivation, outside constraints, etc. But regardless of quality, all of these games are united by a single theme, which must be both frustrating and limiting from a design perspective. I love reading the postmortems, as well. Here’s one from a guy who works with robots at his day job.

In games, a theme can be literal, metaphorical, or even just referential. It could be applied in a setting, perspective or an interesting design constraint, or it could surface in all of these elements. The theme for this round was Tiny World, and it seems that many of the entries attack it from a player perspective angle. I guess that’s why I’ve seen a lot of 2D views from space with a guy running around on a tiny little planet. I’ve also seen multiple entries that incorporate a shrinking mechanic. Sometimes it’s a direct skill that the player can access, and sometimes it’s applied to the environment as the story progresses. Some folks took on a psychological bent, their games set within the confines of the human mind. And then, some implemented the theme as a characteristic of the protagonist: a scientist who specializes in microbiology or a mischievous elf.

Now that the boring, wordy stuff is out of the way, here are my favorites out of the entries I’ve played so far, in no particular order:

In-Delusion: There’s something not quite right here.

Soul Searchin: You can shrink, but it’s all in your head.

Astro Break: One of those cases of guy-running-around-tiny-planet.

Lililput: When’s the last time you played a typing game that told you to spell badly? FIGHT THE MACHINE.

Mayor vs Aliens: Really takes off, once you abandon your deteriorating plot of land and start bouncing between aliens.

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A Game About Slavery

In a recent post on Play the Past, entitled Playing the Powerless in Videogames about the Powerless, Mark Sample poses the following questions: “What are the limits of playing the powerless? What is lost and what is gained in portraying—and playing—a situation that has been well represented in other media? And what considerations should developers and players alike have with regards to responsibility and accountability?”

Sample asks readers to use Flight to Freedom, a free browser game, as a reference point. Flight to Freedom is part of a compilation called Mission US, which aims to “immerse players in U.S. history content through free interactive games.” In Flight to Freedom, you play as Lucy, a 14-year-old girl who escapes a plantation in Kentucky, a slave state, and journeys to the free state of Ohio. The game seems to target a middle-school age demographic, providing an alternative to traditional textbook approaches to learning. It’s geared for a classroom setting. Throughout the game, the player is given a series of choices meant to encourage debate and analytical thinking, instead of fact-memorization, and there is a significant variety of outcomes.  The Mission US website cites a study showing the game has been successful in facilitating this kind of learning.

I could provide short answers to Sample’s questions in the comments section of his post, but my immediate instinct is not to provide any answers, but to burden the discussion with more questions. What Sample’s post did for me is spark internal dialogue and allow a number of related questions I’ve been wrestling with for a while to resurface.

  • Can games portray victimization without trivializing the victims?
  • Does the portrayal of a historical atrocity as an obstacle that can be overcome trivialize that atrocity?
  • Even if it does, is it equally insensitive to portray an atrocity as insurmountable?

Any work that attempts to communicate the experience of something as abhorrent as slavery in the American South faces steep odds. Slavery is a thing that defies logic. The words we use to attempt to describe it feel meager and flimsy because it eludes the grasp of human language. Flight to Freedom takes on the unfortunate duty of relating something that defies communication. Sample’s questions are excellent because he accepts that videogames have limitations at face value. This may seem like an obvious thing to accept, but since games can encompass so many different forms of expression (prose, poetry, drawing, animation, interactivity), it’s easy to get swept away in their potential and forget that there are some things games just aren’t very good at. Getting better at recognizing these limitations could prove enormously liberating, as developers learn to work within and around them.

Flight to Freedom is a point-and-click, graphic adventure that allows players to explore and make decisions from Lucy’s perspective. The presentation includes competent voice-acting, artwork and animation and implies a kind of personal connection. The game could have opted for something with more distance, but instead makes it clear that it’s not just a vocabulary quiz or memorization game, or even a resource management exercise like The Oregon Trail, though all of these elements are present in the complete package. The game tries to invest players in the plights of its characters by allowing them to make affecting choices, just like you would in something like Mass Effect. Flight to Freedom is not a difficult game. Most of the gameplay involves selecting different dialogue options, clicking on things and deciding where to go next. The game offers some moderately trying dilemmas and setbacks throughout Lucy’s journey, but despite its attempts to facilitate some sense of emotional investment, the experience remains starkly impersonal. The result is something that’s not particularly affecting but just engaging enough to provide a nice distraction from your standard middle-school history textbook.

Empathy would be an enormously helpful, if not essential, emotion to tap in creating an experience that allows one to “play the powerless.” Empathy is one of those things that videogames aren’t very good at, even though it seems like something they should be best at. In games, the protagonist is supposed to serve as a vessel, through which the player is transported. But empathy is a difficult thing to convey. Humans are pretty cynical, so it’s not an emotion that can be taken for granted. Cart Life is a game that understands empathy, intentionally frustrating the player with time constraints and lack of direction. The characters are exhausted, yet resilient, and the same is expected of the player. Empathy is the result. There’s this nagging insecurity that keeps most games from even taking a stab at this kind of mechanical connection. They’re terrified at the idea that we might fail to figure out how to do something for ourselves and just give up. As a result, we’re coddled and given limited access to the compelling results that well-executed failure or hard-fought victory can produce. Granted, Cart Life is a game for adults, and it probably wouldn’t go over too well in a middle-school classroom, but maybe there’s a happy medium somewhere.

There’s a mechanic in Flight to Freedom that really shines, or perhaps it’s just its potential that shines. Lucy’s illiteracy carries over to the player. When you pick up a letter or look at a flier, the text appears blurred and illegible. The player can improve literacy by making certain choices and clicking on highlighted vocabulary words within conversations. The ability to read text is something that nearly every person familiar with this sort of game would take for granted. Flight to Freedom uses this expectation to create a sense of vulnerability. When you see one of these walls of text, you can make out just enough letters to begin to speculate on what it says. The effect is maddening. It drives home the idea that literacy is power, and the withholding of this power is part of what perpetuated the institution of slavery. The literacy mechanic is closer to the game’s periphery than its center, and I can’t help but wish it were more heavily emphasized, or that the game had incorporated more elements like it.

In Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison, the protagonist, Sethe, chooses to murder her children to prevent their recapture into slavery. Throughout the novel, Sethe is haunted by her past and her daughter’s ghost. In a foreword, Morrison writes about her approach with Beloved: “The figure most central to the story would have to be her, the murdered, not the murderer, the one who lost everything and had no say in any of it. She could not linger outside; she would have to enter the house. A real house, not a cabin. One with an address, one where former slaves lived on their own. There would be no lobby into this house, and there would be no “introduction” into it or into the novel. I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population–just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

Morrison intentionally deprives readers of a clear introduction into the world she presents. She wants her audience to feel “kidnapped,” in order to better relate to the characters. She takes expectations of how a novel is supposed to introduce itself and uses them against the reader, and as a result, the reader feels confusion, discomfort and eventually empathy. So there’s the impersonal exposure to slavery that we get from textbooks, which Flight to Freedom does pretty well, and then there’s Toni Morrison’s portrayal. Morrison’s slavery is a dense, suffocating cloud that follows its victims even after they’re no longer under the institution’s direct supervision. Faced with something like that, one can only feel powerless. I have many, many hours of playing videogames under my belt, but I can’t think of one moment in a game that made me feel “kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment,” even though games specialize in making us feel like we’re in another world. If a game wanted to achieve some sense of “playing the powerless,” then Morrison’s approach could be helpful.

So why are we talking about Toni Morrison in the same breath as Flight to Freedom in the first place, when the end goal of this game clearly isn’t artistic merit? It would be reasonable to call that an unfair comparison because it is. Beloved is a personal, challenging literary work, while Flight to Freedom is an educational tool; an interactive textbook. I hope I don’t come across as saying “Look at what Morrison does! Why didn’t this game do that?” My hope is simply to continue and encourage the dialogue that Sample initiated. “It’s not a game” is an expression we use to mean “It’s not trivial.” The expression emphasizes the fact that we’re talking about something serious, so in a way, a game about slavery defies an indoctrinated system of logic. Most games are power fantasies about starting from nothing, mastering a set of skills and emerging the victor. Powerless still feels like something that contradicts the medium. But is the power fantasy something truly inherent to the medium, or is it a limitation we’ve placed on games by thinking about them in a certain way?

Flight to Freedom doesn’t really challenge this notion because it doesn’t try to make the player feel powerless. In the first few minutes of the game, you’re presented with a check-list of tasks and allowed to complete them in any order. This list is comprised of Lucy’s day-t0-day chores around the plantation, as well as some personal assignments from family members. On plantation chores, you’re given the option of cutting corners or doing a thorough job. On my first chore (doing the wash), I elected to do the job well in order to test out the system. Would the game make me choose between family and plantation owner, or would it let me please everyone? After finishing the laundry, I was confronted en route to the next chore and scolded for working slowly. From then on, I cut corners. Before long, I was rewarded with a “Resistance Badge” and an encouraging message.

The game clearly encourages resistance. There’s almost a sort of can-do attitude that permeates the atmosphere. The subject matter is as bleak as it gets, but there’s not much bleakness in the game’s bright, colorful presentation. I had to make some tough decisions but completed the game without making any real sacrifices. I felt vulnerable at times, but never powerless. The game’s title implies victory before you even start playing, and the badges you earn throughout the game aren’t just for decoration. Once you complete all five chapters, an Epilogue unlocks, and you can use the badges to affect Lucy’s fate. If you make all the right choices, it’s implied that Lucy lives a rewarding life to the end of her days. It feels problematic to criticize the game from this angle because the approach it takes is probably necessary for the story it wants to tell. And it’s not as if all slaves were completely powerless. They were oppressed, but they found ways to resist. Sure, the game could have more heavily reinforced a sense of powerlessness, but to what end?

There’s a comment in one of Sample’s earlier posts that asserts “for better or for worse, no one really wants to play a hopeless game.” It’s an interesting point, and it might be true. Last month, the Brainy Gamer examined a project in which developer Margaret Robertson failed to deliver a game that was supposed to address an immensely serious topic. The game was meant to serve as a companion piece to Dreams of a Life, “a documentary about a woman named Joyce Vincent who died in her flat and lay unnoticed there for three years, her television still on.” Robertson said that the failed project “wasn’t really a project about death, but about ‘a death,’ which is a much harder thing.” As Robertson suggests, perhaps it’s an issue of specificity; of biography verses history. When it comes to tragic historical and current events, perhaps games should only work in broad strokes. Playing as a fictional slave isn’t inherently problematic because a variety of outcomes are historically plausible, but allowing players to alter the fate of Frederick Douglas or Harriet Jacobs is another matter entirely.

For the sake of coming full circle, I’ll return to Sample’s original questions:

  • What are the limits of playing the powerless? Games generally present an experience in which players can learn a skill set, master it, and eventually achieve victory. But confined within certain circumstances, skill, persistence and determination just isn’t enough.
  • What is lost and what is gained in portraying—and playing—a situation that has been well represented in other media? What is lost is a sense of complete authorial control. What is gained is player agency. 
  • And what considerations should developers and players alike have with regards to responsibility and accountability? Developers and players might consider that certain topics defy logical systems, and in some conditions, a traditional, clear-cut “win condition” might not be appropriate. Some problems can’t be solved by leveling up.

In Beloved, Sethe’s memories are complex. She is haunted by the memory of “Sweet Home,” the plantation where she used to live and work, its “shameless beauty” sprawled out before her: “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves.” Sethe remembers a beauty that is full of ugliness. We expect games to be logical, and if their systems don’t appear logical, then we consider them poorly designed. But some experiences defy logic. Most works that deal with these sorts of issues include some redemptive quality. If a game’s win state could be presented in a way that felt less like victory and more like finding that redemption or glimmer of hope, then perhaps it could start to address this issue of “playing the powerless.”

The Mysterious, Mystical Molydeux

“You are a Pigeon who must go around the city trying to persuade business men not to jump off buildings by retrieving items from their home.”

A Serious Jest

By now, it’s a story that’s made the rounds: There once was a game developer, called Peter Molyneux, who was very serious about his games. Molyneux had many fans, but one came to love him so much that he decided to make a parody Twitter account in his honor. The account was for laughs, of course, but the Fan took it quite seriously, and it was a great success. This entity came to be known as Molydeux, and eventually, Molydeux became so popular that people began to mistake it for the real Molyneux. As a result, Twitter became nervous and suspended Molydeux’s account without warning. The people were heartbroken, as was Molydeux, but soon, Twitter came around and reactivated the account. The people were ecstatic, so inspired by Molydeux’s resurrection that they organized a game development jam in his honor. In a single weekend, hundreds of games were made, all thanks to some thought-provoking chuckles inspired by the mysterious, mystical Molydeux.

Molydeux is one of those rare jokes that’s so good it has turned into something else. It has become a force that straddles the line between an idealist’s passion and a fool’s hyperbole. It inflicts creative types with bouts of amusement and then inspiration. By telling a good joke, Molydeux has managed to become something important.

Context and Perspective

From what I’ve gathered, there are two schools of freeware game development:

  1. It’s done when it’s done, no matter how long it takes.
  2. Just make it work as quickly as you can.

Molydeux’s brainstorming sessions lend perfectly to the second school. Of course, its ideas are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but the philosophy is still strong enough to create genuine inspiration. Many of Molydeux’s game ideas simply present an unusual premise, “You are a scarecrow in a world with just 1 bird,” implying that once you’ve got an interesting premise, you’ve got an interesting game. The mechanics can challenge the player’s intellect, but the premise will provide emotional context. Molydeux suggests that it’s not enough to settle for the same, tired settings. Sure, we can have games that reward us in a purely mechanical sense, but we need to move beyond that.

Sometimes, it feels like the philosophy is about upending the way we think about narrative structure in games: “Game in which you create the end cinematic. Then you work your way from the start of the game to make a perfect connection into that ending.” Don’t just play to get to the cutscene. Start there, and then do everything else. If you fail to lead up to that cinematic, then maybe you’ve won, in a way.

Perhaps, more specifically, the philosophy is about perspective. Games should let us defy the roles we’re expected to play. “Have you ever played a racing game and wanted to play as the road rather than the cars? I know I have…” You’re the narrator, so you should be able to narrate the experience of absolutely anything, be it animal, mineral or vegetable. According to Molydeux, game developers shouldn’t settle for typical perspectives. They should extend their reach.

The First-Person Problem

In Episode 26 of the excellent A Jumps B Shoots podcast, Michael Abbot discusses a problem that game designers face: (Around 1:09:40) “Designers can’t ever overcome the primitive first-person nature of every game…that even if you’re playing as Nathan Drake, you’re still first-person.” He goes on to discuss how we always narrate our experiences with games in first-person, even if we’re given a fairly fleshed out character, like Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston. If I talk to someone about what happened in an episode of The Wire, I’ll say “Omar did this” or “McNulty did that.” But if I tell someone what went down last time I played Red Dead Redemption, John Marston may frame the narrative, but I’ll end up talking about myself. John Marston said some stuff in a cutscene, but I’m the one that hogtied everyone in town. John Marston had nothing to do with it. It’s the nature of the medium.

The Molydeux philosophy takes this inherent, first-person “problem” of game narrative and attempts to approach it from every conceivable angle. “Imagine you’re a dove. Or a teddy bear. No wait, a punctuation mark! How about a single tear, running down someone’s cheek?” Theoretically, you could narrate the perspective of a tear or a punctuation mark with words, but this approach would quickly become befuddled. The interactive experience is a more effective way to communicate this sort of perspective. Molydeux’s jam suggests that first-person doesn’t have to be the problem with game narrative. It could be the solution.

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Epic Sax Game by Pippin Barr

When I first starting playing Epic Sax Game, I thought “Shit, this is really hard.” Then, I thought, “Wait, no, this is absurdly difficult. It’s like the keyboard doesn’t even really understand what I’m trying to tell it.” Then, I finally made it to the Eurovision level, and I was like “Wait a second, there’s a YouTube video?” Then, I watched the video, and I was like “This game is brilliant.”

There’s something beautiful and provoking in Epic Sax Game’s absurd difficulty. The way the notes come in a step too late or inevitably hold out a millisecond too long. It’s a difficulty that highlights the cold, impersonal, yet strangely comforting nature of our internet culture. It’s as if we’re trying to communicate–trying to say something genuine or personal, but all that comes out is this pale imitation of some long-forgotten phrase. See what I just did there? Whenever I find a game difficult, I decide it’s making a philosophical statement. That way, my ego remains unscathed, and if anyone else pops up and says “Hey, I didn’t think this game was that hard!” I can just shake my head dismissively, and sigh: “Sorry man, you just don’t get it.”

But seriously, Epic Sax Game won me over. The difficulty adds a layer of absurd mechanical humor to what would otherwise be a fairly straight-forward wink at an internet meme. The game isn’t difficult in the sense that it’s impossible to get good feedback, as the game is pretty forgiving when it comes to dishing out ratings. What I mean is, it’s nearly impossible to play the correct notes in correct time. In a comment on Free Indie Games, the developer chalked this difficulty up to tech limitation rather than intent: “Sorry! It’s one of those Flash + MP3s things to do with encoder/decoder delay that I simply wasn’t smart enough to fix up. I tried for a while and then figured it worked well enough to still get the idea across.” At first, I found the difficulty frustrating, but now I think that the game is more interesting than it would have been, had it achieved a perfect mechanical responsiveness. Since you’re allowed to play the notes in any order you like, the lack of response ends up encouraging improvisation. Later in the game, I spent most of my time wildly mashing keys or holding chords out for sixteen bars instead of playing the riff I was supposed to, and it was a good time.

The other thing that’s really striking about this game is its premise. It attempts to recreate a viral event, experienced specifically through the YouTube lens. In this way, it reminds me of Rara Racer, a provocative, weird little game that’s difficult to describe. Both games blur the fourth wall by playing with YouTube culture, but they resonate differently: Rara Racer in an unsettling, creepy sort of way; Epic Sax Game in a kind of ecstasy that says, “let’s embrace it.” And while Rara Racer invents a video based on an existing YouTube presence (the “Let’s Play” series), Epic Sax Game invokes two specific videos: The first is a recording of a live performance, which the game recreates as a live performance. The second is a meme, which consists of a clip from the first video that loops for ten hours, and the game reimagines this as a live-streaming, ten-hour internet performance. It all gets very meta. 

Anyway, I’m not sure how the equation ends up looking here, but I do know that the sum of this thing’s parts is brilliant. The game subtly bridges the gap between its fiction and our internet reality (whatever the hell that is). But forget everything I said here. Once you’re done playing, the developer has his own wonderful write-up that you can, and should, peruse.

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