Monthly Archives: May 2012

Walking Through Walls

I like it when game designers walk through walls. When they take time to step back from the system under the hood and think about interface; the window that lets us peer into a micro-universe.

I thought I was done with Ludum Dare 23, but those damned Compo games keep sucking me back in. Lately, I’ve been haunting the upper half of the the innovation category. I like the jam entries too, but for the most part, the more feverishly realized Compos seem more in touch with that spirit of taking a familiar mechanic and really making it sing. My favorites always seem to emerge from the 48-hour time limit.

Let’s talk about Recluse. Your initial snapshot of this thing comes in a much smaller frame than you’re used to. The game window takes up a fraction of your computer screen, but you can just barely make out a small, bearded, bespectacled snail in a blocky violet room. The room is furnished with a computer and television. The area to the left is clearly walled off, but an alleged opening to the right shows promise.

You slither towards that opening, approaching the edge of the game window, but the environment doesn’t scroll. As you reach the edge, you continue to mash down on that arrow key, but the snail has stopped moving. And then he’s absurdly straining against the edge of the window. The screen flashes white, the environment expands and light pours into Snail’s humble nest. As you continue to play this game, you throw yourself against its edges, and the window keeps growing. And you want to see everything, so you keep playing. Achievement Unlocked: Broader Horizons. At first glance, this thing didn’t seem like much.

Milk! takes a similar, winky design approach. It sets you up with two small windows to drag and drop as a spaceship flies between them, mercifully pausing the action as you try to line things up properly. It’s A Tab is a miniscule puzzle game that plays out in the hence-the-name tab at the top of your internet browser. As soon as you figure this one out, you’ll be squinting, but you’ll be impressed. These games seem to enjoy drawing attention to the fact that they’re games. As you play them, they play on your own habitual gaming mechanisms: clicking a mouse, mashing a keyboard, looking at a window on a computer screen.

You could argue that the self-referential approach isn’t always particularly useful. In her write-up of Adam Cadre’s recently released work of interactive fiction, Endless, Nameless, Emily Short highlights a potential pitfall: “art that’s primarily about its own medium tends to feel a bit claustrophobic to me, in-joke-y, exclusive, and quick to show its age.” If a game spends too much time throwing its gameness in your face, then it’s not going to be important to anyone that isn’t already deeply embedded in its culture. There’s a fine line between being comfortable in your own shoes and excluding others who aren’t familiar with your shoes, or, uh…..you know what I mean.

Tiny Wor ds takes a more plugged in approach to blurring lines. When I booted it up in my browser, the title screen heckled me with a prompt: “Enter a Twitter search with 100+ results.” I failed a couple of times, then settled on “madmen.” I was rewarded with an unceremonious decent to the bottom of a tower of moving platforms, constructed from quotes and thought blips surrounding the AMC television series that has all the cocktails. The implied goal is to climb this tower of tweets, so I jumped between phrases that ranged from the mundane to the slightly less mundane to the languages I don’t understand. Now that’s a game with replay value. I had to wonder, what am I really doing here? Playing a game or reading a twitter feed? Still not sure, but it was awesome.

These entries remind me a bit of Hideo Kojima’s work in the Metal Gear franchise. Though some would point to Kojima’s infatuation with the cutscene as enough to dismiss him as nothing more than a game designer that wishes he were a filmmaker, I feel like Kojima’s penchant for reveling in the medium is a significant chunk of what makes his work so alluring. He’s willing to make you plug your controller into a different port just to win a boss fight. He loves to remind us of the weird conversations we’re having with our fickle machines.

So why don’t we see this kind of design more often in commercial games? Some well-placed nods at interface could allow developers to put a new shine on old mechanics without the monetary risk that comes with reinventing the wheel. Are such tactics nothing more than clever tricks? I think the real trick is using these ideas to tap into something broader. Like how Recluse is about games, but it’s also about escaping escapism and fighting the comforts of self-inflicted isolation. It’s about dismantling, or at least expanding, that box you put yourself in sometimes. It’s about walking through walls.

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Transcending the Toolset

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about the work of Nicolau Chaud, Brazilian freeware developer and psychotherapist, but it’s hard. I’m having trouble for a couple of reason. First off, other people have already pulled it off, and pretty well. In his 2010 write-up on RPS, Kieron Gillen called Chaud’s Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneerthe sort of disturbing which one can defend and recommend.”  Wow. The sort of disturbing that you recommend to people. That’s exactly what Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is. Which leads me to the second reason I’m finding this difficult. Chaud’s work defies every metric games criticism has set up for determining value in games, and in doing so, it highlights one of the biggest problems in games criticism: the fact that it still relies so heavily on metrics. Really, Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is one giant middle finger to metrics and conventional games criticism.

Because the game really isn’t fun. It unceremoniously drags the power fantasy element that’s prevalent in videogames to the forefront by making you play as a man who orchestrates torture sessions and posts videos of them online. And it makes you get to know this character more intimately by telling a love story. You could call the game tasteless, but if you did you’d probably be one of the ones that didn’t play it in the first place. Because while you’re playing, interacting with the thing through the lens of its SNES-era sprites, it just feels too earnest to be tasteless. It doesn’t play like a gag, meant to shock and awe. It feels calculated. I almost want to describe it as the videogame version of a psychological thriller, but “thrill” isn’t what it does. “Thrill” has Saw connotations of popcorn, carbonated beverages and escapism. Dungeoneer doesn’t thrill, it unsettles and unravels. It assaults the player’s psychology. It makes you question your own stability. You think “Why am I still playing this?” But then you keep playing. And then when you’re done, you go and tell someone else to play it. Because Dungeoneer just isn’t like any other game. I’m writing about this thing, months after I played it, and I still don’t really know how I feel about it. I can think of other games that have tried to do something similar, but I can’t think of any that have succeeded. And Dungeoneer does succeed, in its own weird way.

Stick with me as I change gears for a bit. In 2007, Justin Vernon released his debut album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon wrote and tracked all of the songs for the album in a few months while he was staying in some secluded cabin in Wisconsin. That’s interesting in itself, but the thing that really sets Vernon’s recording process apart is that he tracked all but a few of his vocals with a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone. This is unusual because most artists don’t restrict themselves to a single microphone, but also because in contemporary, professional recordings, pretty much everyone uses condenser microphones. Vernon, however, opted for a microphone with a much more limited capacity for reproducing soundwaves. So instead of relying on a condenser mic’s vocal clarity, Vernon constructed a unique soundscape by alternating the placements and angles of his more limited SM57. The result is a distant, murky falsetto that sounds nothing like anything else.

Like Vernon, Chaud takes an unconventional approach. He makes games with RPG Maker 2003. Not only does he take on premises that no one else would touch and approach them with the most audaciously straight face, but he does so with a development tool that’s arguably much less flexible than many of its contemporaries, like GameMaker or Stencyl. And he doesn’t even use the latest version of that tool, RPG Maker VX Ace. He attempts to implement high-concept ideas with a program designed for making retro, turn-based, role-playing games. Furthermore, the games he produces have little, if anything, to do with the sort of game RPG Maker is designed for, aside from their aesthetic.

Every artist is limited, to some extent, by tools and the capacity to use those tools effectively. With Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, Chaud has proven that he can transcend the toolset and make his ideas work.The fact that you don’t have to be a whiz programmer to communicate in this medium is catching on. There are lots of gamemaking tools out there, and budding developers could spend a year just trying out different tools with the hope of finding that “perfect fit.” Chaud’s work suggests that if you find a tool, master it and stick with it, limitation can be a catalyst for innovation.

Chaud just finished development on his latest game, (This link is not safe for work or younglings) Polymorphous Perversity, which is in testing and should be unleashed onto the internet any day now.  Chaud’s latest ambition is a sex game, based on Freud’s concept by the same name, which hopes to teach players “about all dimensions of a human’s libido.” Whether or not Polymorphous Perversity succeeds in its ambitions, I think there’s already a sort of victory in Chaud’s efforts to continue to push the dimensions of game development. His games might make us uncomfortable, but that’s precisely why they’re important.

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What’s Loved Got to Do with Mechanics?

I recently spotted a thought-provoking aside from the esteemed Harbour Master, Joel Goodwin, over at Electron Dance, where the comments section has recently exploded into a wonderful cacophony of discussion. The thought that particularly sparked my interest was nudged between parenthesis towards the end of the thread in A Theoretical War, Part 2: “I’m torn over whether to call the graphical flair that occurs when you disobey a mechanic or not.

Now there’s a conversation worth having.

HM is referring to a game he wrote about a couple of years ago called Loved, a browser game about an abusive relationship. Alexander Ocias’ platformer has something to say, like Shift or Continuity or Depict1 or One and One Story, and like its art house platforming brethren, and like pretty much every other videogame ever, Loved heavily relies on visual representation to communicate its conceit. The game is dark and challenging. It doesn’t like you, but you play it anyway.

I’ll bet there’s some super-specific academic definitions of rules and mechanics somewhere in game studies, but as I haven’t seen those articles yet (please link me if you’ve read them) I’m going to stumble along like a stubborn drunk and try to talk about this semantic issue anyway. Besides, I feel like most games writing I read these days calls every interaction between player and game a “mechanic,” regardless of whether or not they’re referring to the player’s interaction with a game’s underlying system of rules or his effect on the visual representation of that system.

So what happens in Loved is a break-down in aesthetic structure that stems from the player’s refusal to comply with a narrator’s demands. The narrator tells you to do something, like avoid a checkpoint or jump into a pit of spikes. If you disobey, then the world you’ve grown accustomed to navigating gradually disintegrates from this clean, black and white interface into a chaotic abstraction of colorful squares. If you take the more compliant route, you’re rewarded with a more detailed, aesthetically pleasing portrayal of your surroundings. From what I can tell, the mechanical rules of Loved remain the same, regardless of whether you obey or disobey. The physics of jumping around doesn’t change, but the way you perceive your environment does.

You could argue that the aesthetic changes that arise from a disobedient play-through increase the difficulty of Loved because they make it harder to distinguish between what you’re trying to jump on and what you’re trying to avoid. So the system of rules that’s under the hood isn’t directly affected, but the player’s interpretation of that system is.

Graphical representation is how a videogame communicates with a player, so those of us who write about games have a habit of calling all of a game’s changeable elements “mechanics,” even if the we’re just talking about an aesthetic response to player input. I did this when I wrote about Flight to Freedom, when I said that its portrayal of illiteracy through blurry in-game text is a “mechanic that really shines.

Furthermore, we often use the term “game” as shorthand for “videogame,” because videogame is such an awkward term. You feel kind of silly when you say it, and when you write it, it’s not clear if it should be one or two words. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy devotes a section to explaining why the “video” in videogames matters:

In digital games, the computer keeps the rules. The computer tracks all the numbers. Digital games therefore have much greater control over what information that players have access to, making videogames capable of much greater ambiguity than board or card games. What’s ambiguity good for? Telling stories!” (52)

According to Anthropy, videogames are especially skilled at conveying ambiguity because the player can’t see under the hood to a game’s system of rules. Her analysis implies that aesthetic, the “video” part of videogame, is just as important as the “game” part. Aesthetic is how the game talks to the player. Sure, a game is ultimately a system of rules, but in a videogame, aesthetic affects the player just as much as the underlying algorithms. And it’s videogames that most of us are talking about, right? Furthermore, she distinguishes between “authored” games, which teach us about an author and “folk” games that teach us about a culture. So Loved is an authored videogame that uses aesthetic to communicate its message.

In these things called video games, graphics are our window into a game’s soul. It is through the lens of aesthetic that we interpret a system of rules. Semantics are an easy way to get tangled up in discussions of videogames or folk games or whatever we’re talking about, but it seems like a necessary evil if the goal is to move the conversation forward. After all, we are using words to talk about these things. So should we always talk about mechanics and aesthetic as separate entities? If Loved responds to a player by changing the graphics, do we call that a “(videogame) mechanic?” Any thoughts?

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