Saturday, December 29, 2007

Lefty Loosy Righty Tighty

New Classical criticism focuses on identifying a game's primary function/action that sums up all of the player's actions, functions, and abilities into a single expression. This expression can be thought of as the interpretation of the game or what the gamer is actually doing when he/she plays. Sometimes the primary function can be encapsulated in a single word. For example, the primary function of the Super Mario platforming series is "jump". After the primary function is identified, the New Classical critic then looks at a game's formal elements to analyze how they promote the primary function. The formal elements include Sound, Music, Art style, Story, Graphics, level design, enemies, etc. Because the New Classical critic privileges interactivity over passivity (especially when focused into a limited number of rules and actions), such a critic is only concerned with how these elements shape the gameplay experience, and assumes that any formal element in a game is only meaningful when it supports the primary function and exists in a lower state of priority to that function. In other words, elements like story can't be more stressed and more important to a game than the gameplay. Even if a game is designed according to the conventions and assumptions of Western game design, it can still be critiqued in the Classical mode.

Lefty Loosy Righty Tighty: An analysis on how Drill Dozer's formal elements and structures harmonize around the primary fuction of Drilling.

Drill Dozer, a game developed by GameFreak and published by Nintendo, features a primary function of "drilling" as made obvious by the title. Players are set in a world where just about everything responds to drilling. Enemies, garage door openers, giant engines, crates, walls, ceilings, desks, and even toilets are all manipulated or destroyed by the mighty drill that Jill wields. Besides basic walking and jumping mechanics, you drill to move, attack, defend, burrow, and clutch onto suspended surfaces. Beyond these functions, Jill can also duck and dash for shot distances left or right. These functions alone are more than enough to create a deeply interactive game world. The following is a list of Drill Dozer's player functions arranged in a hierarchy of importance based on frequency and necessity of use.

  1. drill
  2. jump
  3. duck/dash
  4. walk
  5. search/examine

The main game is broken down into 6 areas each featuring sub missions depending on their size. Structurally, the game achieves variation from mission to mission by adding new enemies and level elements that force players to exercise different facets of their 5 core mechanics (see above). This approach is the alternative to a progression of "counterpoint" which takes a single (or limited) mechanic/function and designs a series of levels and challenges from a limited set of pieces or tools to express the function. A good example of a game with counterpoint level design is Super Mario Bros. for the NES. On the other hand, in Drill Dozer, by adding new pieces per level, the player is constantly experiencing something new even when using the same mechanic of one of the core functions. Additionally, in true Nintendo fashion in regards to enemy AI and difficulty, the enemies in Drill Dozer are "dumb" meaning their simple attacks and predictable movement patterns make them easy to dispense of (at least individually). Also, Drill Dozer's level elements and challenges aren't difficult to overcome (nor does the game severely punish players for making a few mistakes). However, these simple elements add up to impressive results when layered together. Whether you're drilling, tunneling, swimming, or flying, the level design is clearly focused on drilling.

Structurally, the game uses repeated acquisition of the 3 gears to propel the players through each level. With each gear comes increased power, speed, and drill time with the third gear having an infinite drill time. With increased power the player can access new areas by destroying the strongest barriers as well as destroying targets and enemies more quickly. With increased speed the player can move more quickly through and between obstacles. And with increased drill time players can hold on to drill sockets longer.

To accentuate this "gear-shift" gameplay structure, the music and sound design in Drill Dozer uses tempo and multiple sound pallets to create a sound scape that supports progressive drive through the level. Because the background music is out of sync with the rhythm of the steps in Jill's walking animation, an underlying tension is created that makes the player feel slightly off; like they're always late or just out of reach from some goal. These rhythms are punctuated the heavy mechanical sound of landing from jumps and the acute kick of a shifting gears. Furthermore, as Jill shifts into higher gears drilling harder, the metal sounding pitch increases of the drill. This crescendo creates a drive and a feeling of pushing forward that is synced up with progress through a level as measured by how many gears they've found. When the player grabs the final (3rd) gear, the music shifts into an upbeat higher pitched song that reflects Jill's newly acquired abilities (speed, power, and time). This light weight, upbeat tune discards the slower, heavy sounds telling the player "you're almost there! now drill your way into the finish!" In this way the sound scape supports the primary function of Drill Dozer.

The majority of the visual design in Drill Dozer follows the structural principles of "form fits function." This principle simply means, any visual element that serves a function must reflect that function by adhering to either a universal, or easily learned visual code. For Mario, everyone knows that jumping on spikes is painful whether the spike is on a goomba's head, inside the mouth of a piranha flower, or descending from a sliding ceiling. For Drill Dozer, objects that must be drilled with the bit spinning left (loosy) are color coded blue. And objects that must be spun right (tighty) are coded red. These codings however, provide an easily discernible visual clue. Due to the small size of the GBA screen, the threading of the drill shafts can only be seen in the large tunnels. For the small bombs and missiles however, this color code is necessary. It's universal knowledge that screws hold things together. Likewise, the oversized screws (form) in Drill Dozer serve the same function. In order to dismantle any large robot with a protruding screw, removing the screw is key. Other forms include cracked walls (reveals a weak spot), thicknesses of drill-able targets (the thicker the cable the more drill power needed), and the appearance of drill-able material (stone, wood, general metal, titanium). Because the entire game follows these rules, the player can break down and understand the level according to what's drill-able and how, at a glance. Empowering the player with intuitive, dependable, and universal design only makes their job of drilling easier. Instead of tediously testing each square surface for hidden drill-able spots in the entire game, the player use his/her eyes to do the checking and move on quickly, and smoothly otherwise.

To conclude, Drill Dozer is a very Classically designed game. It's no wonder when you consider that GameFreak is a company that sits very close to Nintendo (the company responsible for pioneering Classical Game design in the first place). When playing games like Drill Dozer, the stress of beating the game is taken off the player leaving them free to just have fun in a world design completely around doing one thing a hundred different ways. From the sound design, to the level design, Drill Dozer is all about drilling. Even the fiction in Drill Dozer supports this primary function. As the leader of a band of "good hearted" thieves, drilling into museums, stadiums, and out from police custody is all in a days work.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Game with a Pencil

Ever since high school my teachers have advised me to read with a pencil. By underlining, circling, and writing notes directly on the page, I became an active reader. As an active reader, I actively responded to the information in the text instead of just reading through it without stopping. The simple act of marking the page helped to separate the moments of meaning in a text from the sea of sentences, which is particularly useful when studying or writing papers.

Likewise, when playing games it's important to take notes to help you remember. No, I'm not talking about The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass where you can draw on your maps. And no, I'm not referring to Trace Memory where players are forced to reflect on the events that have transpired before moving on to the next chapter. By notes, I mean writing down names of places, items, or characters. Since it's not only difficult to draw on a spinning disk but ill advised, a simple list will do. If you're afraid that taking time away from playing a game to jot down notes will interrupt even destroy your enjoyment of games, allow me to allay your fears.

Taking notes about your game experience enhances your enjoyment of games because it helps to organize the surplus of information and gives you the language to reflect on it. Have you ever finished reading a book and you could barely recall the main characters names, let alone the minor characters, the names of the locations, or which chapters events took place in? In the same way a simple list reinforces information from books, cataloging information from a game reinforces the game. If you've been following the Zelda series, do you know the difference between the hook shot, rope shot, claw shot, and long shot? Being able to say "...and Romanos on Molida Island..." adds to your confidents and credibility as opposed to "...that one guy from that one part in the game." Besides, most games have plenty of loading screens and load times where you have enough time to scribble down a few sentences.

Though the average gamer is probably not interested in turning gaming into "homework," having some kind of system for taking down information is essential for a critical-gamer who's interested in writing reviews or any other game article. If you don't have your own method, I highly recommend reading Game analysis: Developing a methodological toolkit for the qualitative study of games by Mia Consalvo and Nathan Dutton.

When I finish my Phantom Hourglass Toolkit I'll be sure to post it. In the meantime, I'll be contacting several online and print game writers inquiring about their methods for taking notes on the games they cover. Until then, grab a pencil.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Subversive Portal: Review

Being a critical-gamer gives us access to the language to explain our gut reactions of games, and the complexities of games themselves. However, communicating with the same language is important. Using the same definitions for words and the right words is essential. In Portal is the most subversive game ever, Joe McNeilly presents a very interesting analysis of Portal. Though the article is a good read, McNeilly's diction requires some attention. You know the drill by now. Read the original (it's a short read) and then return to my commentary for a good exercise.

[Warning: The text you are about to read contains heady intellectual discourse and is not recommended for anyone made queasy by the discussion of feminist film theory or psychoanalytical signifiers.]

Game writing is still in a period of nonage as evident by McNeilly prefacing his article with a disclaimer about the high intellectual writing that follows. Depending on the type of audience that frequents, a waring regarding psychoanalytic and feminist material may be appropriate. But warning of forthcoming intellectual material seems unnecessary.

Yet beneath the mainstream success lies the most subversive first-person shooter (FPS) ever created.

Portal is not a first-person shooter. It is clearly a first person puzzle game. The FPS genre was been uniquely named. What other genre also contains the perspective in which it is played (besides 3rd-person shooters which were named in response to FPSs)? Ultimately, the differences in gameplay and design between a first-person and third-person shooter is negligible. The genres are ultimately about shooting guns and overcoming enemies with force. Furthermore, many games have first-person shooting elements but are not FPSs: The 3D Zelda games, Mario Galaxy, The House of the Dead, and the Metroid Prime Series. Some of these examples may seem like a stretch, however I only used them to illustrate that Portal can completely belong to the Puzzle genre while having similar elements of the FPS genre.

Deconstructing the term "first-person shooter" reveals two fundamental concepts of the game mechanic. "First-person" is a personal pronoun that provides linguistic context, or origo, to enable discourse. It is a perspective.

McNeilly's deconstructive move here is different from the literary theory of Deconstruction and Deconstruction according to critical game theory. It's important to understand the overlap that can occur when encountering this word. McNeilly is simple breaking the word "first-person shooter" down into it's elements. If McNeilly wanted to use deconstruction critical game theory on Portal, he would have to look at how the structures of the game undermine themselves. Moreover, McNeilly's comments on the first-person perspective are apt. However...

"Shooter" describes the discourse that is to occur, specifically the shooting and ultimately killing of the other participants.

It would have been better to describe portal as having similarities with the FPS genre to avoid running into issues of genre misplacement. Unfortunately, McNeilly's argument is built around Portal being an FPS. Because of this misplacement, some of the impact of his article is reduced. Also, the word "discourse" seems misused, in that it implies communication or conversation. Unfortunately, we don't talk with bullets and death. "Action" would have been a more suitable word.

The playable characters in first-person shooters are almost always men. In the rare event that a female character is playable, she serves as an object of male fantasy and her interactions with the game world are still forced through the male-oriented lens described in the previous paragraph. Interestingly, playable female characters are usually presented in third-person action games (think Lara Croft) -- again reinforcing a visual power dynamic that in this case furthers the objectification of the female form by a predominantly male audience. Rather than the player assuming the identity of the heroine, she becomes a controllable other.

Perfect Dark for the Nintendo64 features a female character who is the worlds #1 agent, Joana Dark. She was neither objectified or hypersexualized. And even when trapped in the male gaze of the FPS genre, the majority of Joana's mission objectives are non violent based on stealth and reconnaissance. How's that for a subversive game that is actually an FPS? It's also worth noting that the console sequel to Perfect Dark on the Xbox360, featured a younger, more sexualized Joana. Perhaps more feminine friendly games can be found on Nintendo systems as opposed to the machine the Microsoft built. Assuming any female character in the third-person is a "controllable other" that is objectified by the player is rash. What about the Pokemon series that allows player to play a male or female character n a world that lets players choose their own activities among collecting, battling, and showing off the aesthetics of their Pokemon? The world of Pokemon is also a place where even battling only results in fainting as opposed to death a subtle change that subverts violence for sport and play. Besides Pokemon, there's a slew of Nintendo games that are virtually gender neutral.

As the player, you're never even aware that you're a woman until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the third person through a portal. The unobtrusive presentation of the female protagonist doesn't force a male gender perspective on the player as is the norm in FPS games.

McNeilly's point about the "unobtrusive" presentation of the female protagonist in Portal is very true. But Portal wasn't the first to do this. The original Metroid for the NES features the female protagonist Samas Aran, whose gender was practically hidden from most players throughout the game. Beating the game quickly enough unlocked a special ending revealing that Samus was indeed a female and not a robot. Samus' power suit helps to mask gender identity. And with the Metroid Prime series, players assume the role of a completely un-sexualized protagonist. At the same time, the Prime series is in first-person and reflects some of the conventions of the FPS genre. The absence of mentioning the Metroid series or any other Nintendo game possibly exposes McNeilly's lack of experience with such games and the possibly that they are more subversive than Portal.

Portal successfully reinvents both the "first-person" and the "shooter" elements of its genre in a manner that celebrates the empowerment of the feminine rather than subjugating it to objectification by the male gaze. The force of its message is amplified through its unconventional deployment of adversaries and genre archetypes. In doing so, it subtly yet powerfully points out to the entire industry that games needn't exist solely to service the libido.

Portal is a first-person puzzle game. Even if it were an FPS, it would not reinvent the "first-person" or the "shooter" elements. Its design is standard for puzzle games. The first-person perspective doesn't revolutionize the puzzle genre. Rather, it adds a branch to the Puzzle genre. Yes, portal is an excellent game filled with subversion to many male-conventions. However, it's just one in many that "point out to the entire industry." Perhaps, McNeilly should spend some more time with the classics, and with Nintendo games especially considering how the PC and Xbox360 markets are over saturated with traditional masculine first-person shooters.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bioshock Defense Review

*To listen to a complete recording of this article download the MP3 podcast from the link at the bottom of the gray column to the right under Critical-Casts Download*

Being a critical-gamer means having a discerning eye not only for games, but for reviews and other pieces of game writing such as defenses. By not assuming a given argument is true, by questioning an challenging it even, we can gain a deeper understanding over the issues and of the speaker. In BioSchock: A Defense, Kieron Gillen responds to the negative backlash on BioShock. The defense, under a close examination, is a poorly constructed defense that speak smore to Gillen's irrate, confrontational state of mind than to BioShock. What is more interesting is how Gillen's defense reflects the shortcomings of BioShock through their shared structured and forced incoherency of meaning.

I'll start from the top and move through Gillen's defense. As an exercise, I recommend reading through the defense first, then react, question, and challenge the material for yourself before continuing to see how your critical eye matches with mine.

Page 1

"BioShock is amongst the most critically acclaimed games of the year. In terms of Metacritic average, its only peers are Super Mario Galaxy and Halo 3."

Gillen opens the Defense framing BioShock by its review success.

If you can't choke down the saccharine standard Mario world or aren't convinced that Halo's combat mechanics are anywhere near as elegant as its devotees make them out, you're highly unlikely to play them. There's much to hate in both games, but their fans simply don't care and those who aren't fans will never throw away forty quid for something that isn't to their taste.

Already, Gillen's hostile edge is revealed. Though he intends on defending BioShock, he spends his time needlessly attacking Mario and Halo. It's worth noting how Gillen comments on these two games. He refers to them in terms of other players potential views. Being "convinced" and "devotees make them out" reflect a betrayal of opinions from some kind of community. Because this defense is written in response to an online community's reaction to BioShock, it can be said that Gillen has trouble listening or accepting the opinion of others without taking offense or becoming upset. For Gillen, supporting Mario or Halo isn't simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it's a matter of love-hate and intelligence-ignorance: "There's much to hate in both." I'm not sure what place "hate" has in a defense with any semblance of argumentative merit. For Gillen, it seems that anyone who's not with him is an ignorant fan of the contrary who "simply [doesn't] care." Being a Mario and Halo fan, I didn't expect to be attacked in a BioShock defense.

In other words, a BioShock backlash was inevitable as it's new. People bought it on the strength of the reviews (and the hype - always, the hype) and then, when this random selection of gamers played it and compared their response to the ejaculate-smeared reviews, a larger proportion went "I don't think so" and pointed at the flaws.

Gillen claims that the negatve backlash to BioShock was a consequence of it being "new." I'm not sure what Gillen means by new or why he felt the need to italicized it. Aren't all games "new" when they are released? Even so, if BioShock has flaws, what does it matter when this "random selection of gamers" points them out. (Also, by calling these gamers "random" Gillen attempts to diminish their opinions simply because they disagree with his love of BioShock.) Would he have preferred these "random" gamers point out flaws before the game's release? And even if Gillen meant that the backlash was only created due to the "ejaculate-smeared reviews" that judged BioShock very favorably, isn't reacting to other seemingly exaggerated opinions, thoughts, and arguments precisely what Gillen is doing in this defense?

But a game having flaws doesn't mean the emperor has no clothes, and the prevalent forum attitude to BioShock has wandered so far away from its merits to require a stern riposte. That I haven't done so yet saddens me a little.

Gillen identifies the interpretive community as being from a particular game "forum." I believe the wandering "attitude" refers to the current trend in opinions on BioShock. What does it matter if the prevailing attitude of a game is negative especially if it is supported by valid arguments. It seems that Gillen is taking it upon himself to push BioShock's supposed merits to the forefront in order to ignore its flaws. Being "sadden" that BioShock's merits aren't discussed, only adds to how much he's taking the issue personally.

You see, I was surprised to find BioShock's not my favourite game of the year... When I think of BioShock, I have to wipe away pages of forum nit-picking and genuinely bitter pub-based rows before I can even start thinking about, at its best, how clever and elegant it is and how on its own grounds it makes everything else released in this incredible year for videogames distinctly second-rate. For most of this year, I've been too tired to actually do this.

Here Gillen claims that his mental state is so easily derailed from the forum's "nit-picking" and "bitter" comments, that he even has trouble thinking. What does it say about a professional game writer who gets shaken up so easily by comments on an internet forum? Furthermore, how can BioShock not be his favorite game of the year when it makes "everything else released in this incredible year for videogames distinctly second-rate?" Perhaps, Gillen couldn't think straight when writing this section. Such a simple contradiction reveals more about Gillen's psychological state than he may have been aware. Perhaps he cant' give BioShock game of the year because he knows its flaws and shortcomings better than anyone else, and he feels he has to lash out not only at the gamers who also think so but Mario and Halo fans as well. Perhaps being "tired" is his minds' way of keeping him from confronting this issue.

"But when the response to a patch with free new content is just a shrug and a bunch of whining over free stuff, I can't help but think we - as a community - need a good slapping and a reminder that we should be a little bit grateful. I'll start with more mechanistic stuff and head increasingly into the art"

Winning about "free stuff" is annoying, but there could be more to this situation that Gillen has let on. BioShock does have many glarring flaws and issues with its design that could have been addressed with the patch. If I were a huge fan of BioShock and these issues weren't addressed, I would feel that there would be room for some complaint. It's hard to know exactly what the issue was. Though, Gillen's hostility shows up again through his diction: "a good slapping." At least Gillen's approach is clear: "I'll start with more mechanistic stuff and head increasingly into the art"

This is a difficult one, because I'm pretty much incapable of reading a paragraph with it in without immediately, out of hand, rejecting the person saying as having anything worthwhile to say.

Gillen tells us himself how quick he is to react to bold statements against BioShock. Granted, this particular statement is thrown around too often without proper backing. I commend Gillen for taking the time to break down a bold surface statement, into arguable points.

1) It's easier to play.
2) A load of interesting options have been removed so it's a much simpler game.

The first one's true. BioShock is both a more accessible and easier game than System Shock 2. But "easier" doesn't have anything to with it being "dumber", and hating "more accessible" is just petty elitism from people who'd actually like videogames to be a ghetto consisting of them - especially when some of the things to make the game more accessible can be turned off. As long as point two's not true, then the former really doesn't matter.

The argument Gillen makes here is pretty sound. I would only additionally ask if easier "doens't have anything to do with being 'dumber'," then what does it have to do with? Structure? Design perhaps?

And the second's not true. Mechanistically, you can do just about everything you can in System Shock. What was removed was either irrelevant, actual flaws or replaced with alternative methods to allow similar expression. For example, pre-patch PC fans were angry there was no option to walk on the PC. But - y'know - walking is about allowing you to move quietly. You can move quietly through the crouch, signifying creeping. In terms of the tactics allowed by your player, you can do the same. It's annoying when the Xbox has it, but it doesn't remove options. There's no leaning around corners but - really - if you're looking around a corner you're visible, and functionally a tiny strafe and back does the same thing. (I'll concede losing the cover of a corner is regrettable, however.)

Examining the differences between System Shock 2 and BioShock by looking at mechanics and their function is a smart move. The two examples that were given are also apt. However, "mechanistically, you can do just about everything you can in System Shock" is a statement that forces us to presume Gillen has actually done the work of plotting out and comparing all the mechanics of the two games. We only get two examples here that speak to Gillen's work. I would have liked more examples. "What was removed was either irrelevant, actual flaws or replaced with alternative methods to allow similar expression." I would also have liked examples for each of these. Perhaps if this were a more formal defense, they would have been provided.

But that said, some of the elements which have been critiqued by the purists are actually more complicated than Shock 2. The hacking isn't BioShock's strongest point... but in Shock 2 it was literally pressing buttons with no relation to player skill whatsoever. The photo-based research is, mechanistically, more interesting than Shock 2's system of just finding the right chemical and dragging it to the right bit of the User Interface. Hell - stuff like the invention and the weapon upgrade system has no parallel in System Shock 2. The formalised role-playing statistics are removed, but a system where you can create a build for your character allows you to vary the character in meaningful ways. There's also the added bonus of increased verisimilitude due to things like weapons degradation and the requirement for a player to have a certain level of a skill before they can use certain weapons being cut. These are elements of Shock 2 which, frankly, most people thought were a bit rubbish.

I'm not convinced how BioShock being more "complicated" makes it better than System Shock especially in the face of detracting from its accessibility especially when Gillen took time to make accessibility a point for BioShock. Though the basic "out with the bad" of System Shock is clear from this section, I would like to know how taking photos is "more interesting" or what "meaningful ways" BioShock addresses character variability.

It's a different, quicker paced, easier game, sure... but in terms of allowable player expression, it's not in any way a dumber shock.


In other words, it's too easy. They've got a point.

Stop. This statement means more than "it's too easy." It speaks to the lack of structure within BioShock that creates an absences of consequence. This is the beginning of how BioShock deconstructs itself. In other words, the structures in BioShock create a game experience that severely undermines consequences and therefore the gameplay of Bioshock. Because the game medium's strength is its interactivity, this statement has potentially exposed a fatal flaw in the game. Gillen moves away from this critical point of analysis, successfully ignoring the reasons why BioShock fails as a game.

That said, the actual quoted argument doesn't really. On the surface, sure, but on closer examination it falls apart. Sure, if you abuse the Vita Chambers in such a way, eventually you'll complete the game. But why the hell would anyone want to do that?

Gillen tries to separate surface and close readings of the argument. I feel he was largely unsuccessful in his attempt. What's worse, his counter argument fails for the same reason he accused the stated argument of: "on a closer examination it falls apart." First he agrees the Vita Chambers can be "abused," but then his counter argument is "why the hell would anyone want to do that?" The answer is, because we can; because the designers gave us the power to; why not? A game writer such as Gillen should know that examining a game is less about what you can do, and more about what you can't do. In short, rules not only restrict options, but shape the gameplay experience. The game rules set up the game system, and the player seeks increasingly effective strategies to beat the game because, for a classically structured game, winning is the goal. Winning is everything.

The alternate in a relatively freely structured level game like BioShock - quicksaves - still means that any challenge in pretty much every game will be eventually overcome through growing player knowledge of the situation.

Gillen fails here to counter BioShock's poor gameplay structure. He tries to defend Vita Chambers by considering an alternative game-save structure: "quicksaves." He claims that quicksaves would still result in the player overcoming all challenges because of their "growing player knowledge of the situation." Gillen's couldn't see that learning the rules of the game or situation and eventually overcoming it is gameplay. This is how all games function as a result of death (losing) and having to play a section over again. Even if Gillen's counter argument were true, it doesn't speak to the lack of structure that would create consequences that in turn would create gameplay by encouraging the acquisition of the knowledge of game rules.

In fact, in a normal play-through, the Vita Chambers mostly work fine. I'd have preferred them a little less common to make them more of a encouragement to stay alive, but...The actual punishment is you losing the resources you spent in the engagement before dying.

Besides an almost negligible amount of backtracking from spawning in a Vita Chamber, Gillen states that the "punishment" or consequence for dying is "losing the resources you spent." First, losing resources isn't a consequence. Even in a shooter game, the consequence isn't losing bullets, but what will happens when you don't have any bullets. Also, even if not having ammo in BioShock was a consequence, the player always has access to a wrench that has infinite ammo. This wrench can also be powered up, which further undermines Gillen's claim. Second, the Big Daddy's, the toughest enemies in the game, don't regenerate their health if you're killed in battle and respawn in a Vita Chamber. Clearly, with a structure like this, there is no consequence for wrenching your way through the game. When the game's structure doesn't prevent gameplay like this with consequences, then there's nothing to discourage the player from doing it. If the developers allow such gameplay, then aren't we forced to consider it as one of the many ways the player can "express" themselves in the world of BioShock? Gillen's aggressive ("hell") rejection of such gameplay speaks to his own desires for the game he wished the developers at 2K Boston had made instead of the inconsequential open world game where everything goes. Open worlds or "freely structured level games" are illusions of gameplay. Gameplay, expression, and fun are created from limitations (according to the classical game model).

Of course, this is a fault in BioShock. But it's not a fault which you will necessarily hit, and it's a fault that's far more easy to avoid than the equivalent unbalancing in Oblivion. Just don't go crazy with the camera.

Once again, Gillen expects the player to impose restrictions and rules on themselves to remedy "faults" in BioShock. I don't believe it's the gamer's job to fix the developer's mistakes.

The first part's simple: When you find a tactic that works, many people stick with it. If they've got too many resources, there's not necessarily a need to experiment so they stick with it. And the game, logically enough, becomes really bloody repetitive.

Gillen attempts to address the player's tendency to ultimately try and win in the games they play. Instead of confronting BioShock's structure, he looks to the gamer for the source of the problem. At the same time, instead of looking at the game and himself, Gillen focuses on all the gamers who aren't playing according to how he feels is appropriate.

The second part's a little more complicated: I think some designers believe that players like to do interesting things in-game. BioShock is based around that - in that you're given a wide toolset, with lots of weapons and approaches and ways to improve your character and an environment to beat the baddies up with. Go have fun, says BioShock. But players aren't all - in fact, I suspect most aren't - wired to have fun in a world just because the tools are neat. They need to be pushed into doing neat things. Even if you haven't an excess of ammunition, there's simpler methods to taking people out rather than the more amusing ones. So they do them, and the game's repetitive.

Gillen reveals some of the supports for standard game design: "they need to be pushed into doing neat things." This is why games have to be designed. The player needs to be structured in a way where they have to learn and experience the game rules and apply that knowledge. Yes, most players (and people) aren't going to go out of their way to impose restrictions on themselves. That is the ultimate freedom; the freedom not to have to do anything else. Yes, this may become "really blood repetitive," but such is life. This is why restricting structures and consequences are so essential in game design. Gillen uncovered and explained this idea quite clearly, yet he still refuses to face the fact that BioShock isn't much of a game according to the fundamentals of human nature and game design principles.


It also picks up on the Meta level. You being programmed to kill on order is a critique of every linear shooter the world has ever seen. The final third widens it to everyone else - if you're stuck in a videogame, so is everyone else and... well, that's a really horrible thing. Even the (inevitable, in retrospect, but I was laughing at myself when I didn't see it coming) Protect The Little Sisters Escort sequence, if you've been following the fiction, has a resonance. Of course the girls are going to stop by each corpse. They can't help themselves, and your awareness of how they're trapped makes you falling into the role of protector make a lot of sense - you're fighting, on both levels, to end this videogame. Hell, you could expand that to the final uninspired boss sequence - this is what we're trying to get away from.

Gillen's comments on how BioShock "picks up on the Meta level" is a last ditch effort for Gillen to hold on to his wanning appreciation of BioShock (at least on an esteemed game-of-the-year level). His comments can apply to any game with a goal: "you're end this videogame."Considering the player's feelings and probable reactions falls more in line with Player Response criticism, but they can also speak toward the great imitative fallacy of videogame design. Like many other examples of Western game designed games, the experience is privileged over the gameplay. This is true of BioShock. Being forced to go through the same experience as the characters according to the game's story creates an illusion of immersion and parallel experience. Being forced to drive across a city in a game that is as large as a city in real life does create the feeling of driving across an actual city. However, driving in the game is also as boring. Creating an open world in a game does open up the possibilities for the player. Unfortunately, most of these possibilities are aimless, being lost, and worse, being bored. Classical game design focuses on limited scope from the outset of development, and easily avoids falling for these fallacies through the balance of mechanics, level design, and consequences. In the face of no consequential structures in BioShock, feeling "trapped" or the role of the "protector" ultimately detracts from the game.

The truest critique of BioShock is that while it openly ridicules FPS conventions, it never finds a way from it. I'd say, so what? The argument needed to be posed, and BioShock is the first-person gamer working through its awkward adolescence. Hell, that it capitulates to the genre while seething at it probably might even make it some kind of gaming equivalent to Adaptation...

So what? We can't "so what" every valid criticism away. What Gillen does admit to is that BioShock is a game that exists in a state of "awkward adolescence." Mark Twain (Clemens) couldn't escape his own cultural biases when writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This speaks to the inability of Twain, the author, to understand his own situation. Because BioShock was created from many "authors," we can say that it is a failure of the developers to understand how to properly structure the game and its narrative. The answer is obvious. Game design. More specifically, Classical game design.

Is it acceptable to kill defenceless girls to stay alive, just because someone tells you do?

Perhaps it's acceptable for the same reasons playing with only the wrench his acceptable. There are no consequences for doing so.

Page 3

BioShock says no. The answer's just "No". It's not something with grey areas - if you do so, you're someone who prioritises your own existence over someone else's or an easily lead dupe. There's no moral excuse. You're an ethical monster, and are made of the same stuff of Fontaine. Or, alternatively, you're someone who treats it just as a videogame. You're not thinking about it at all, just the lovely Adam. In which case, yes, BioShock - a game that's furious that it's a videogame - doesn't think much of you either.

The commentary on ethics and morality is just weak here. What's wrong with treating a videogame as a videogame? By extension, if BioShock says it's wrong to do something, shouldn't there be consequences? Doesn't the lack of consequences in BioShock completely subvert every one of Gillen's claims that Bioshocks privileges morality over immorality? Sorry Gillen, but BioShock isn't "furious," and it's just a game. It's a game in which its story and gameplay (or lack thereof) conflict in the most detrimental way. Rapture was designed to be a world of freedom, a utopia even. But this same freedom in the game design created a world devoid of true expression as the lack of consequence destroys any meaningful action. What does mean to fight when you cannot die? BioShock tried to create a story with an overt morality, and yet being completely good or wholly evil yields almost the same resulting game experience (until the end of course). What results is the merging of right and wrong that falls apart almost as violently and inescapably and the flooding city under the sea.

With BioShock, the more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more you have to think about. The more you think about, the more you understand the bloody thing. It's created, by far, the most novel setting for a mainstream videogame this year. Most importantly, while its narrative is of enormous importance to it, it never once betrays the medium. It doesn't - say - present Rapture in cut-scenes. It puts you in a room and puts things in a room and, by induction, you come to understand the place. This is what's most novel about games in relation to narrative - i.e. setting as narrative - and BioShock does it as well as anything ever has.

The more I look...the more I understand. This can be said for all visual mediums. It is nothing special to BioShock. The setting of Rapture is indeed quite interesting, but I wasn't aware that BioShock is a "mainstream" game. I wouldn't think a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 could be considered mainstream. Gillen claims that BioShock "never once" betrays the videogame medium. He continues by stating that Bioshock never presents Rapture to the player via cut-scenes. Gillen goes on to commend BioShock for letting the player understand the narrative through their own exploration of Rature. However, there are many scenes in the game where the player has limited or virtually no control. The story scenes in BioShock do play out in front of your eyes, however, because you can't interrupt or interact with them in any meaningful way, they might as well be cut-scenes. Apparently, Gillen thinks that interacting consistently through an entire game is the only way to stay true to the medium. But what about the hacking mini game? Not only does this diversion take players out of the setting of Rapture, but it also freezes time. If an splicer enemy is hot on your tail pelting you with attacks, when you activate the hacking mini game, they apparently politely wait for you to finish before resuming. Furthermore, "setting as narrative" is not what is most novel about games in relation to narrative. Interactivity is at the heart of the videogame medium. Therefore, interactive narrative is what is most novel about narrative in games (especially through refined game mechanics [Majoras Mask, Portal]).

People who are - say - against BioShock and in favour of Super Mario Galaxy (For the record, I love both), argue Mario is a purer game. It's not true. Mario, by dumping you in cut-scene after cut-scene you have to click tediously through, features an element which is a complete sidestepping of what games can and perhaps should be. I'd accept someone making an argument that Mario's a better game - but a "purer" one stinks of some kind of misplaced fascism. BioShock is nothing but game...BioShock believes in videogames and what videogames can be, and - if you go along with it - it'll take you to places we've never really been before.

Super Mario Galaxy is the best representative of Classical game design so far this generation. Because Classical game design privileges interactivity and gameplay, elements at the heart of the videogame medium, it is without question more "game" than BioShock could ever be no matter how many patches it goes through. His claim of Galaxy's excessive amount of cut-scenes is brash and unfounded. Gillen, games should be games. Narrative and story shouldn't come at the expense of interactivity, design, and gameplay.

What "stinks" here is how your defense has fallen apart.

I'm not convinced that hitting criticisms straight on is the way to defend BioShock. At best, you sound just as anal as the people you're arguing against. At the worst, you end up, as I did above, just calling some people ignorant. But sometimes people's positions are ignorant, and when you are, you've got no recourse but to say so.

In the end, BioShock is an overly ambitious game that fails to make a world with consequences, and therefore failed to create a game. Like the game, Gillen fails to defend BioShock as his own arguments worked toward revealing BioShock's deficiencies and exposing his own insecurities with the "game that could"... have been great. Like the game, Gillen practically swears by a morality that doesn't exist. It doesn't matter whether the player play the game without stopping to take in the scenery, listen to the recordings, do anything but wrench die and repeat, or harvest every little sister he/she comes across. The illusion of the utopia of Rapture is reflected in the insignificances of the gameplay. Without consequence there's not real strategy or expression. Like Fontaine's failed promises, BioShock's player customization is completely undermined in execution. Ryan used the dollar to motivate the goingson in Rapture. Similarly, Gillen admits to writing this defense for the money: "(And Tom offered me cold hard cash)." Like how the final third of BioShock fell flat, so did the final third of Gillen's defense. BioShock couldn't escape the FPS conventions, and Gillen couldn't escape misplacing his anger for BioShock on the gamers and other games such as Mario. Gillen boldly questions what kind of player I am. He invites me to question if I'm an "ethical monster" made of the same "stuff as Fontaine" And yet, he ended up the same as the people he criticized: "At best, you sound just as anal as the people you're arguing against. At the worst, you end up, as I did above, just calling some people ignorant."

"A BioShock backlash was inevitable. As was a backlash to the backlash."

As was my analysis.

Friday, December 14, 2007

GOTY: Gotta Have One

Many approach the subject of Game of the Year with great caution and even trepidation. Others have dismissed it altogether claiming that it's a meaningless popularity contest. Some sites put up electronic polls in order to discover how the gamers feel. Still others stick to in house voting, perhaps giving every editor a limited number votes. Regardless of how legitimately or artificially a game of the year is chosen, every gamer (especially a critical one) should have a game of the year.

BioShock (PC, 360; 2K Games)
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii; Nintendo)
Halo 3 (360; Microsoft)
The Orange Box (PC, 360, PS3; EA)
Ratchet & Clank: Future-Tools of Destruction (PS3; Sony)
Mass Effect (360; Microsoft)
NBA Street Homecourt (PS3, 360; EA Sports)
Unreal Tournament 3 (PC, PS3; Midway)
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (PS3; Sony)
The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (PC; Midway)
NHL 08 (PS3, 360; EA Sports)
Rock Crysis (PC; EA)
Persona 3 (PS2; Atlus)
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS3, 360, Wii, PS2; Activision)
MotorStorm (PS3; Sony)
Assassin's Creed (PS3, 360; Ubisoft)
Warhawk (PS3; Sony)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PC, 360, PS3; Activision)
Super Paper Mario (Wii; Nintendo)
World in Conflict (PC; Sierra)
Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure (Wii; Capcom)
Skate (PS3, 360; EA)
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii; Nintendo)
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS; Nintendo)
World of WarCraft: Burning Crusade (PC; Blizzard)
Planet Puzzle League (DS; Nintendo)
God of War II (PS2; Sony)
Heavenly Sword (PS3; Sony)
Virtua Fighter 5 (PS3, 360; Sega)

I've lifted the list of nominees from 1up. Though this list is a tad excessive, the variety is noteworthy and the list will serve our purposes. Let's assume that as a critical-gamer you have seriously played and digested each of these titles (though the notion is absurd as even game reviewers don't have time to thoroughly play through the entire roster), and by doing so, you are aware of each game's pros and cons. Now all you need to do is pick one. As simple as it may seem, many shy away from committing to a game choosing it above all the others. Choosing a game of the year is more complicated than measuring how much "good" and "bad" are in various games. Due to the large variety of genres and platforms represented on this list, at some point you're going to have to make the call between two unlike games. In the end, apples and oranges can be compared. Choosing one over the other doesn't necessarily mean that one is superior, but that you prioritize and value some quality of your choice above all other factors.

In essence, choosing a game of the year says more about you than how good the game is. And when networks like 1up or IGN pick a game of the year, it means even more. Besides being a rough estimate to the ratio of PC-360-PS3-PSP-DS-Wii reviewers there are on staff, a major network's game of the year speaks to what values they support and what shorting comings and draw backs they're willing to forgive, overlook, and even ignore in their assessment of games. Ideally, the editors and staff would deliberate over their choice in an discussion or debate so that they may consider their options from as many view points as possible. Any consensus reached thereafter represents their network views that would, in a general sense, frame and color their game bias throughout the next year.

To give you a better idea of the kind of values that can be extrapolated from a GOTY choice, I'll give as many examples as possible from games that I have experience with. As you read them, imagine each game in 2008 to have all of the same qualities. If you're not satisfied with every game having poor frame rate, for example, then perhaps Zack & Wiki isn't your game of the year. Keep in mind, I am still in the process of assessing these games. These comments are subject to change.

Super Mario Galaxy
  • Privileges Classical Game design
  • Privileges forms that fit their function
  • Highest levels of polish (no glitches, consistent frame rate)
  • Reinventing the genre
  • Fun and accessible for all gamers of all ages
  • Hight amount of variety
Halo 3
  • Polished/refined game sequel
  • Large volume of features (, vidoc, forge, online support)
  • integrated community
  • Lack of any significant/consequential design or structure
  • Privileges the game experience over the gameplay
  • Ideas and ambitious are more important than execution
Mass Effect
  • Privileges story and story telling over gameplay
  • Terrible frame rate and loading issues
  • Excellent writing and voice work
  • Lackluster combat
  • Lack of variety
The Orange Box
  • Value is a factor when judging the overall quality of a game
  • Privileges Classical Game Design (Portal)
Guitar Hero 3
  • Marginally improved sequel
  • New modes add little additional value (online versus, battle mode)
  • Represents a very successful multiplatform game
  • Developers can get away with needlessly adding material that is degrading to women (groupies, etc.)
Heavenly Sword
  • Presentation and production values are privileged over gameplay and story
  • Games that can be beaten in a sitting
  • Lackluster fighting mechanics and level design
  • Lack of Variety
Planet Puzzle League
  • Repackaging great games with online support
  • Adding to the touch generation's library with top-notch titles
  • bridging the gap between gamers/nongamers & hardcore games/nongames.
  • Privileges gameplay and functionality over presentation
Assassin's Creed
  • Privileges presentation and graphics over gameplay
  • Forced and shallow game mechanics
  • Vast Game worlds
  • Excellent animation
  • Extreme lack of variety
God of War II
  • Privileges the roller coaster experience over components of its gameplay
  • individual parts are basic
  • projects that don't intend on innovating
  • High level of polish
  • Pushing the ESRB line through questionable material
Super Paper Mario
  • Privileges nostalgia and canon over substance, style, and gameplay
  • Represents a failure of two genres (platforming/RPG)
  • Gameplay gimmicks

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Critical Casts ->12/05/07

Developing a critical eye and ear for gaming will not only allow you to delineate the quality between games, but it will also allow you to be more critical of comments and opinions from any gaming community. Critical Casts is a blog series where I will highlight any noteworthy comments from the weeks worth of podcasts and video reviews. The aim is to give listeners the opportunity to identify and ponder issues and ideas raised in the podcasts and compare their reactions to mine.

For the first entry in the series, I've selected three podcasts from the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving. With the Christmas break ahead of me, I will be more prompt with posting my responses.

GFW Radio 12/5/07
  • 29:29: Flip-Flop: "Letting something critical slip through and then immediately back tracking and apologizing it away"
Flip-flopping is fairly common and it was one of the issues I pointed out in my Game Informer Mass Effect Re-reivew. I believe part of the problem stems from a lack of a sound foundation in videogame critique. It seems that many reviews don't know how the conflicting impressions and feelings they have after experiencing a game can exist simultaneously. Understanding the difference between a well designed game and a game where you can have fun requires understanding the relationship and balance between game mechanics and their execution. Without such a working knowledge, it is immensely difficult to write about a complex game cogently in a review. Not only does this require knowledge of game design, but competent writing skills, both of which are hard to come by.

  • 40:33: "Disparity between content between previews and reviews"
I've found that when writing previews, many videogame journalists or "enthusiasts" will keep their "niggles aside" under the assumption that the game is still being polished and little issues will hopefully be removed before the release of the final product. However, these issues often go unfixed when the game is finished. Even when they are, such tweaks are often insufficient to warrant the high scores the previews have projected these games might receive. This disparity leads into the next highlight...

  • 41:10: Judging early builds accurately. "Dishonesty by omission"
Because developing games is such money and labor intensive undertaking, as the project moves past the middle stages of its development, it becomes increasingly difficult for the game to change in significant ways. At some point, the graphics can't be tweaked. Some issues, however small, would simply require too much time and money to fix. Assassin's Creed suffers from pop-in despite the stunning graphical presentation of its environments. Additionally, Mass Effect has terrible frame rate and loading issues. We were well aware of these graphical issues throughout the multiple previews of the game. Obviously, hoping they would be fixed wasn't enough. These are just two games out of many.

Because of this resistance to change, critically judging early builds of games does have merit. The reviewing industry stresses playing a game as completely as reasonably possible before reviewing it, which is a good policy. However, for the purposes of understanding and speaking critically about games, small sections of a game can provide plenty of material for discussion. Generally speaking, controls, graphical style, and presentation are consistent from the beginning of a game through the end. Lair's lack of adequate controls and Assassin's Creed's lack of variety are two issues that are apparent from previewing the game. Yet, many previews gave glowing reports about the potential of these games. By not talking about these crippling issues, as time has shown, the reporters effectively lied by omission.

For the experienced gamers, often times a bad preview for a game "turns out exactly like you [were] thinking." Keying in to the structures that support the foundations of game design is an effective way of judging whether a game works or not upon limited impressions.

1up Yours 11/30/07
  • 15:40 Geometry Wars Galaxies is "unplayable if you don't have a classic controller"
This is a strong statement claiming that the default controls for this game are insufficient. Are we really to believe this? Any critical listener should want such a statement to be supported by arguments or valid points. John does just that. He claims....
  • The Wiimote pointer moves the tip of the laser sight.
  • The Wiimote pointer controls the extremity of the screen.
  • You "wipe it around" to shot in various directions.
  • You are unable to quickly and accurately shoot in various directions.
  • The control are unintuitive.
A critical listener who has not played Geometry Wars Galaxies, assuming all of these points were valid, would most likely accept John's claim. I, however, own the game and have experience with the Xbox360 version, DS version, and the Wii version with the both sets of control options. For Geometry Wars controls, I have much experience. Here are my impressions...
  • The Wiimote pointer shoots where you point and isn't restricted to the tip of the laser sight.
  • The Wiimote pointer does not control the extremity of the screen.
  • Pointing and shooting is as accurate, intuitive, and versatile than the duel stick counterpart or more so.
The only way our two impressions can be so conflicting is if John played an earlier build of the game that supported an alternative control method. Otherwise, my only other conclusion would be, John is a poor judge for discerning nontraditional controls.

IGN Wii-k in Review11/20/07
  • 8:00 "even if you don't have a classical controller, you can still play Geometry Wars [Galaxies Wii]. It plays fine."
Even without having access to Geometry Wars Galaxies, Casamassina and Bozon have stated that the Wiimote controls that were supposedly "unplayable" (according to 1up) are in fact "fine."
  • 20:09 "terrible Wii Sports Boxing"... "[Throwing] punches just doesn't feel good when you have no contact"
Being a Wii Sports Boxing fan, I find the lack of support for these bold claims detracts from Casamassina and Bozon's credibility. Technically, you don't have any contact with the tennis ball, golf ball, baseball, or bowling ball in any of the other Wii Sports games. If Wii Sports Boxing is no different, then this claim falls apart with IGN's praise and support of the other Wii Sport Games. "It's like air boxing." Likewise, the whole game is like air sports.
  • 22:55 A listener writes in inquiring about IGN's lack of understanding and appreciation of Wii Boxing.
It's disheartening to hear the conversation regress into name calling. With that aside, the only statement Casamassina offered in his defense was that many other reviews dislike Wii Sports Boxing. After making up statistics about the percentage of reviews who dislike Boxing, he goes on to make huge generalizations about how the game is neglected because "nobody" plays it. Unfortunately, this kind of unprofessional-middle-school-antics does nothing to support Casamassina's stance on Wii Sports Boxing. Granted this is an informal podcast, the truth of the matter still stands. Of all the words that were said, listeners still know little about what makes Wii Sports Boxing good or bad.
  • 37:23 Forgiving Ambitious Games
Casamassina expresses his tendency to lean toward a double standard for reviewing "ambitious" games like Mass Effect: "If that happened in Galaxy we would knock a point off for that... But I guess because Mass Effect is so huge in scope... you have to forgive all these crazy things that happen... I find it really hard to forgive stuff like that." Fran Mirabella backs him up saying, "When a game is super ambitious you do that. It's hard because you gotta balance out like how you feel about it over all."

Reviewing games is difficult due to the different types of elements that composes a game (art, technology, sound, music, mechanics, design). Clearly here, the reviewers at IGN have to figure out their own way to compare these elements and the short comings found therein.

I feel that the industry as a whole has grown too forgiving toward "ambitious" games and efforts. Any company can be ambitious. It's easy to bite off more than you can chew. Not enough credit is given for the companies who make great polished games within their limits like Super Mario Galaxy. At the end of the day, a bad frame rate is just bad, and no amount of the game's story is going to make the game smoother.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Even Jaffe Knows

There are two main approaches or schools of game design: Classical and Western. Classical game design involves building a game from the smallest unit, the core, and then building a game around that unit. Western design starts with a high concept privileging ideas over mechanics and gameplay, which often results in shallow fragmented elements in its core. In other words, classical game design is like designing a sports game where a limited set of rules can achieve a great variety of expression, possibilities, and emergence.

The most significant facet of the videogame medium is its interactivity. Understanding this is the first step to understanding the limitations of the medium. Many western developers are intent on creating games that tell stories without paying careful attention to this fact. How well written a game's text is, or how cinematic its visuals are can only support a game so much before it begins to detract from the interactive element of the game and, therefore, detract from the game itself.

In an interview series called Geniuses at Play: Game designers explain the laws of adrenaline and the science of fun, David Jaffe reflects on his games and his methodology for creating games such as God of War II. In his retrospection, he touches on some of the assumptions, and principles involved with the two schools of game design, videogames as a medium, and story telling in games.

That's all we did in God of War. If you take the individual pieces of that game apart, with the exception of a couple puzzles I'm particularly proud of, there's nothing inherent in the core game that's really special or unique. It's just that we executed it really well and we had enough time and money and talent that we could throw enough of these minor elements at the player to create a major experience. But the individual elements, you can take the platforming in Mario and it's better; you can take the combat system in Devil May Cry and it's better; you can take the puzzles in Ico and they're better.

Jaffe describes the core of God of War II as not being "special or unique." He also admits the mechanics and elements in the game (jumping, fighting, puzzle solving) have all been done better in other games. Instead of working with the core of the game, Jaffe and his team focused on how the game was adding up to create the "major experience." Because the experience of the game was prioritized over the core mechanics (the interactivity at the heart of the game), experiencing the game on the minor level could have become shallow and boring. However, Jaffe had a unique approach to solving this problem.

Playboy: So you just pile on more monsters whenever you feel their attention is lagging?
Jaffe: Exactly. Of course, we tune and polish our games to the point that we still end up making really good, compelling games. But in an ideal world, I would like to have the game system itself be what keeps the player engaged instead of a number of simple things being thrown at the player one after another to keep them engaged.

Solution: Just throw a bunch of monsters at the player. Though this solution isn't Jaffe's ideal, the team was still faced with the task of tuning and polishing God of War II, which is a difficult task regardless of the game design school that is adopted. Jaffe expresses his desire to create a game according to the Classical design model. The "game system" that "keeps the player engaged" that Jaffe refers to is the core of a Classically designed game. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario brothers series and pioneer of the classical game model for videogames, has been known to express the importance of creating the core of a game that is fun. Once this is achieved, he says, then the rest of the game will be fun because it rests on a solid foundation.

Playboy: Do you think it's possible to create a visceral experience that also has depth or meaning behind it all, or at least some core mechanics you can be proud of?
It's definitely possible, but I struggle with that issue, because I always start with the end experience in mind. Today I'm working on a document for a new game, and I have a vibe in mind for the way I want the player to feel when he sits down and plays the game. It's a two- or three-line vision statement of what I want the game to feel like. With God of War I wanted the player to experience what it feels like to be 10 years old watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It's clear that Jaffe creates his games according to methods of Western game design. His games, as a result, have shortcomings that he expresses openly. The difficulties of creating games in the Western style is apparent. How can you play the experience of being "10 years old watching Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Feelings and experiences are abstract. Attempting to communicate such abstractions often leads to a break down in the way the director communicates with himself, the developers communicate among themselves, and the way the game communicates with the player simply because of the nature of abstraction. Such a communication barrier leads to the incorporation of game elements that don't support the core game as game mechanics are deemphasized. Developers often find themselves adding elements they've seen or heard in movies, or read in books because those elements evoked a specific feeling that is similar to the one they're attempting to create with their game. However, blindly borrowing elements from other mediums is risky. Each medium is different containing individual strengths and weaknesses. The lack of understanding of both videogames as a medium and the medium from with material is borrowed is the easiest way for developers to lose sight of their game during development. I can't play a game's story, special effects, sound, or graphics. Actions, rules, and mechanics make up the interactivity of a game and therefore are most important to the medium. On the other hand, Classical game design sticks to the the core mechanics. Classical game design can also be called Japanese game design because of the way the Western and Japanese designers neatly fall into each respective school of design. It's no coincidence that the three games Jaffe listed as having better core mechanics than God of War II are all made by top level Japanese developers.

Jaffe: I'm not a big believer in the idea of storytelling as a huge aspect of games. Certainly games can have stories and they can be successful in part because of the stories, but if somebody comes in and says, "I want to make a game about a guy who has this feeling" I'd say that guy should probably write a book or a screenplay instead.

The same instincts that are pulling Jaffe toward designing games Classically, probably shaped his views in regards to storytelling in games. It is a little ironic that Jaffe suggests writing a book or screenplay in this hypothetical situation because "somebody" wants to design a game around feelings when Jaffe had just described starting God of War II, as well as his other projects, with the desire to communicate an experience. Both are abstract. In short, Jaffe seems to realize the common pitfalls of Western game design, but is unable to fully escape them. Letting go of the Hollywood induced illusion of grandeur, experiences, and adventure of epic proportions that is often misplaced in the gaming medium can be quite difficult for someone who grew up being enthralled by movies like Indiana Jones as a child. It may be difficult for such a person to choose playing hop-scotch over to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Designing games around limited actions is possible. Miyamoto designed Super Mario Bros. around a single action: Jump. And from that single action derived not only an entire game, but a widely successful game series.

I was profiled in a magazine with a number of other game designers and in the article they compared game designers with film directors. And for me, because we had just come out with God of War, they said, "This is the Ridley Scott for video games" because he had just done Gladiator. Which is ridiculous. And I felt like saying, "Please stop." I hate the idea that non-gamers are going to pop a game into a console and expect to have an experience that moves you like a film, because they're not. They're going to be looking at their inventory screen and they're going to be stuck trying to solve a puzzle and they're going to be trying to figure out, "Okay, if I stab the cyclops in the eye three times he goes into that motion and that's when I can use the medusa head on him." That's what games are right now.

Here Jaffe essentially explains that games are ultimately actions ("stab"), rules ("three times"), and mechanics ("if...when...use"). Though as graphics improve over time and games look more and more like movies (often imitating the form of movies directly), getting through the game and interacting with the game world or fiction is what the player will be focused on. It's what the player ultimately wants out of a game. In other words, you can't sit back on your couch and watch a game. You have to play it.

Jaffe: No. Because not only do they require a huge investment of time, they require a huge suspension of disbelief. When you play an engaging game like a SOCOM death match or Wii Sports or Calling All Cars, you're swimming with the current. You're not trying to do more than what the game is capable of. When games embrace the true capabilities and strengths of the medium, that's where you see your commercial successes. When a game tries to do more than the medium is capable of, you get some critical accolades and you get some fan boys on message boards who say you're a great artist. But you don't get big sales.

The videogame medium revolves around interactivity. This is a much more complicated concept than more passive mediums like books or movies. The game goes nowhere without the player, and the player can't do anything outside of what the game allows. This relationship is similar to the student-teacher relationship. How can the student learn if the teacher doesn't explain things or assist in anyway? Similarly, how can the teacher teach if the student refuses to obey any rules or follow any order? Just like how a teacher fits into a very limited range of actions, the gaming medium also has limits. If a game tries to be a book or a movie, it will fail if it forgets to be a game first.

Guitar Hero benefits from the same thing. Everybody has, or most people have, the fantasy of being a rock star. There is a story there, there is a fantasy there, it's just that it's one that you bring to the table yourself. And that's much more powerful than, "Here's Billy, he's a guitar star wannabe." Who gives a shit about Billy? You have your own guitar hero fantasy, and the less they say that's going to clash with your own personal fiction, the better.

In the gaming medium, the story is what you play, not what the game shows you. In order to create a proper story in a game, the player must play through the events or fiction in that story. This means more than just running across an overworld to get to that next cut-scenes. Guitar Hero does it right. Even the core gameplay is shaped by the fiction centered around the "fantasy of being a rock star." We all know real rock stars play real guitars, and they hit every note in their solo's perfectly in time. Guitar Hero knows that the gamers aren't really rock stars. Therefore. with every color-coded note, a split second of leeway is programmed into the game. In this way, gamers can rock out without being stressed about hitting everything perfectly on time. This mechanic makes it easier to look and sound like a rock star, and thus the fiction (fantasy) of Guitar Hero is suspended.

Friday, November 30, 2007

SMG - Edge Re-review

Structures are probably the most recognizable feature of videogames. Because structures create the foundation for the game rules and player to learn these rules, analyzing structure develops a clearer insight into how a game works at its core. We're all familiar with the structures of genre. Any gamer can instantly recognize a first person shooter like Halo from a puzzle game like Tetris. Each gaming genre has a certain look to it that is the result of the gameplay structures. Like with any genre, the degree to which the conventions are followed or deviated from varies greatly from game to game. Recognizing a game's structure is an acute way of talking about how a game works in or outside of its genre.

Aside from a structuralist approach to critical analysis, A New Classical approach looks at how the game's various elements (moves, attacks, level elements, sound, visual effects, etc) work together or harmonize to support the core of the game. The core of the game is more than the sum of its basic mechanics. The core can usually be described in a simple phrase of an action or feeling that encapsulates the overall impact of a game. In a New Classical critical mode, we assume that every element in a game adds up to some effect or purpose. Whether or not the end result is fun, boring, broken, or not quite what the developers intended doesn't matter to a New Classical critic. How a game comes together in the end is a measure of its unity and consistency.

The following review of Super Mario Galaxy by EDGE is a quality review that not only makes my top 3 SMG reviews (the other two I've re-reviewed previously), but it also reflects a Structuralist and a New Classical critical approach.

Edge Super Mario Galaxy Review

Super Mario Galaxy is impossible. Don’t get the wrong idea – it’s not a particularly difficult game, although it does have its moments. What we mean is, it obeys no rules, contradicts everything you know, and has no right to exist.

Just like in Margaret Robertson's review, the intro paragraph is sarcastic, silly, and totally appropriate matching its style with Super Mario Galaxy. The last line in this quoted section already suggests Galaxy is a game that deviates from the conventions of its genre. "It obeys no rules" doesn't mean the game has no order, but that the established rules from previous games in the game genre don't apply thus contradicting "everything you know." By thinking about rules and conventions, we're already working toward thinking in a structuralist mode.

Mario Galaxy turns 3D into 2D, and 2D into 3D. It takes complex spatial ideas and makes them simple and instinctive; it takes the most basic, most familiar acts in gaming and makes them strange, finger-twisting and fresh.

Edge starts to break down Galaxy's apparently unconventional genre. This section hints at the importance of space in a platformer 2D or 3D. In Galaxy's case, what was once complex is now "simple and instinctive." Just like in Parish's review of Galaxy, Edge comments on the blurred distinction between 2D and 3D. Each sentence here deserves at least a page of supporting material, but for the purposes of this review, Edge had to move on.

It lets you reach into the screen, collecting and shooting the star bits that litter the universe, grabbing on to tractor beams, steering bubbles through mazes, twanging Mario and Toad out of catapults. It lets you play the game in two ways and two places at once, and breaks a hitherto unseen barrier between the player and the action. That you can both be Mario and help him is another of Galaxy’s initially strange dislocations, but it comes to feel so comfortable that losing this godlike power is like losing an arm.

Also, as Parish mentioned, Edge writes about the how collecting starbits while simultaneously controlling Mario merges two dynamics of spacial interaction. This aspect of Galaxy's controls and interaction structurally divides and defines space (a key component to platform games) in ways never dreamed of before. "Reach into the screen," "breaks a hitherto unseen barrier," and "play the game in two ways and two places at once" are phrases that speak to the amazing unifying structure of Galaxy and of its ground breaking design.

Structurally, it’s a little more conventional – 120 stars, split into six areas comprising several galaxies each, with the ‘final’ boss coming halfway through, is an entirely familiar arrangement.

Edge even uses the word "structurally" here. In this case, Edge comments on the arrangement of the hub world by describing a formula that the previous two 3D Mario platformers (Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine) have established. This is an example of how Galaxy is structured within genre conventions.

Super Mario Galaxy is a platform game, pure and simple. More so than Mario 64 is; more so than any truly 3D videogame ever made. For all its countless diversions and bizarre ideas, it keeps coming back to running, bouncing, scaling, exploring, teetering on the brink, taking your heart in your mouth and jumping off the edge of the world. For others, space is the final frontier, the furthest you can go; for Mario, it’s just like coming home.

Here, Edge claims that Super Mario Galaxy is a platform game that reins over all over other platform games and "3D games ever made." More importantly, Edge expresses that all the "countless" variety in the game all adds up to solid platforming: "It keeps coming back to running, bouncing, scaling, exploring, teetering on the brink, taking your hear in your mouth and jumping off the edge of the world." In other words, there's nothing in the game that detracts from the simple task at hand; like the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES, it's all about that jump. Even in space and the most 3D environment ever, Mario is still harmonized around that famous jump. This New Classical idea not only displays the unity in Galaxy, but in all of Mario's platform games throughout his entire series. The feeling of unity is a big part of what makes Mario games feel like Mario games.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What Being a Critic Does....

"What being a critic does is gives you access to the language to explain the gut reaction you had. And to understand it, to interrogate it, to challenge it.... My gut reaction is still my gut and that is what I trust more than anything." ~ N'Gai Croal

The 1up 11/16/07 cast of 1up Yours featured special guest N'Gai Croal the writer of Level Up. Level Up is a videogame blog affiliated with Newsweek. In the podcast, the group responded to the question of does reviewing/critiquing video games reduce the enjoyment of playing games. This is a commonly expressed concern that exists for many fields of art. I believe that one's initial reactions or gut feelings about a game are greatly sustained through criticism. More importantly, I believe that understanding, interrogating, and challenging our feelings and gut reactions is how we can move from expressing unbacked opinions to taking control of our individuality and truly explaining ourselves in relation to a work.

I've found that many game journalist (rather game enthusiasts) toss around "buzz" words in attempt to express their gut feelings, and reactions to a game. How many times have you come across the word "intuitive" when reading Wii reviews, or the word "compelling" when reading a review of just about any game with smidgen of story? In a good review, these words are just the beginning. Backing them up with examples of elements from the game that created this feeling speaks volumes about the game and the reviewer. Unfortunately, most cop out without explaining anything.

Having an opinion or a feeling is just the beginning. Understanding these feelings involves discovery and knowledge of oneself and of the game. What if you think a game about a son searching for his father is masterfully compelling because your father disappeared when you were little? Does your history make the game more compelling? Can you look at how the games elements work together without considering your personal history? If not, can you come to terms with your possible bias and still say something about the game that may be more universal to other's experiences?

A dialog must exist within yourself. In this conversation all opinions, reactions (however brash), and thoughts are welcome to freely bound around. At some point, you should question why you reacted the way you did. After this, you may have to challenge yourself. Ultimately, properly supportable opinions/feelings will survive such scrutiny, while everything else might dissolve somewhat. Coming to this point doesn't destroy your opinions though. Though the quest to find one's father might enthrall you, you can still see how the story in this particular (hypothetical) game succeeds or fails to come together to mean anything significant. Being a critic isn't a sacrifice of one world (enjoyment) for another (sterile-trenchant-critique). Knowledge is power: in this case, the power to exist in both worlds simultaneously.

With time, your gut will be tempered and refined into a machine that can lead you into developing highly intelligent and profound reactions. Like with so many goals in life, practice makes perfect. N'Gai trusts his gut. I trust his gut too, but not in the same way. I trust N'Gai's gut to provide him an efficient avenue to explain his feelings through articulated speech, and subsequently who he is in relation to a particular issue/work. This doesn't necessarily make his statements right, but the clarity of his writing provides a clear ground for any possible rejections.

I recommend checking out N'Gai's blog. In the meantime, know thy self and stay critical.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mass Effect- Game Informer Re-review

Highlighting good game reviews can show us a lot about how reviews should be written. Likewise, examining the shortcomings of bad reviews can also be instructional. Some reviews are very poorly written. Aside from the final score, the written portion of these reviews often reflect the reviewers bemused conception of the game. This confusion is most likely due to the reviewer's lack of understanding of how the game's elements work together to create the overall product. Regardless of how good the game is, a review should clearly communicate either some aspect of the game or a personal account of the reviewer's gameplay experience.

In preparation for my review of Mass Effect, I read the review in issue 175 of Game Informer by Reiner. I also read the second opinion by Ben. I have several issues with these reviews.

"Not since Star Wars made its theatrical debut in 1977 has there been a universe so full of wonder and awe."

It's hard to determine exactly what Reiner means here. Is he claiming that Star Wars and Mass Effect contain fictional universes that are in a league of their own above other films? But Mass Effect is a game. Comparing Star Wars to it implies that this comparison covers all mediums. Is he really trying to say that there isn't some other book, movie, or game that has a fully awe inspiring universe? The following quote suggests Reiner is including these other mediums. If this is the case, this is a bold claim.

"It's an amazing work of fiction, a visual work of art, and a property that is so fully realized and so rich in its backstory that its contents could fill countless games, books, and movies."

This statements suggests that the content of Mass Effect endlessly generates. If not, how else can such a game fill "countless games, books, and movies?" I'm sure we all understand what Reiner meant by this statement, but the words themselves work against his meaning. Also, Reiner fails to even hint at what specific elements of the game makes it "amazing" let alone how they were assembled to create this effect. Even if there were strict limits to the length of this review, the writing reflects Reiner's lack understanding and critical thinking.

"The developers at Bioware have grown mightily as storytellers and have honed this craft to make every second of the content seem important. Even the side missions, which have the players traveling across the stars to different solar systems, planets, and moons, is either relevant to the conflict at hand or used to help the player better understand the universe and how it came to be. "

I wonder what other kind of content Mass Effect could have. Isn't the nature of a side mission one that is related to the main mission or created to deepen the player's understanding of the overall game world? Surely, the developers at Bioware wouldn't put something in the game that has nothing to do with the universe of the game. This statement fails to support how "Bioware [has] grown mightily as storytellers." As a reader, I still want to know what makes Reiner think that Mass Effect has better story/universe than most books and movies.

"Mass Effect's run-and-gun warfare is certainly ambitious, and it has the potential to be incredibly powerful. However, most of the skirmishes, which begin and end in the blink of an eye, run into balancing issues, problematic AI, and a difficulty in comprehending what is transpiring."

I do not know what Reiner mens by "powerful." Perhaps he means flashy, or functional. Furthermore, the four problems Reiner encountered with the combat are serious issues that occur "most" of the time. I can't see how such glaring problems with the action part of this Action/RPG, wouldn't seriously detract from the game. If most of half of the game (the action half) has problems, then the score of 9.75 suggests Reiner consciously ignored the games shortcomings.

"The gameplay is certainly fun, and it controls admirably, but it doesn't live up to the lare stage the story sets or the standards you've come to expect from action games and RPGs."

According to Reiner, Mass Effect falls short of the standards for both of its representative genres. This statement is significant. According to Reiner, even the deep character and weapon customization get old "after a few hours." Judging from Reiner's review, it's clear that Mass Effect privileges story and concepts above gameplay, function, and execution. In the review, Reiner even opens with positive comments about Mass Effect's scifi universe and story before transitioning into the shorcomings of the gameplay as if trying to hide the flaws of the game behind the promise of its story: "Now you've probably noticed I haven't talked much about the gameplay."

"You'll want more from it, but by no means does it hold the experience back."

I don't understand how Reiner can express so many of Mass Effect's gameplay shortcomings and then make this statement. Is he really trying to say that disappointing gameplay doesn't negatively affect the gaming experience? Reiner goes on to say how "captivating" the story is. If Mass Effect represents a "new age of interactive storytelling" they why would any reviewer discount the "interactive" part of the gaming experinece. Even when the story/experience isn't privileged over the gameplay, it's still an integral part of the game's narrative.

The Second Opinion written by Ben shares many of Reiner's sentiments. Ben also comments on the game's balance.

"Problem is, certain powers/weapon combos allow you to steamroll waves of enemies, making the game feel easy until the dice rolls turn against you and you find yourself dead within seconds."

Ben goes on to say "I want to call this a balancing issue." Shouldn't the game reviewer be able to discern if this problem is a balance issue or not? "Wanting" to call it a balance issue exposes Ben's lack of understanding of the issue.

"Still, Mass Effect could very well represent the future of entertainment, and its few flaws shouldn't' stop anyone from enjoying that experience."

What about people who enjoy solid gameplay?

In closing, according to these reviews, Mass Effect is all about story. However, neither Reiner nor Ben could explain what makes the story so good or "captivating." What is clear are the issues with the combat/action portion of the game. As an antecedent to my hands-on time with the game, my impressions of Mass Effect are disjointed and spotty.

It's hard to justify such high review scores based on the two articles. In the end, readers should realize that these reviews communicated very little about what makes Mass Effect (potentially) so good. And with a double score of 9.75, we have to start judging whether these reviews are bias or even worth considering.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Portal: Narrative

Portal is an excellent example of a game that follows the rules, assumptions, and principles of Classical Game Design. The setting, dialogue, characters, visual style, music, and sound were all set into subsidiary roles to support the gameplay, the unique driving mechanic of the videogame medium. Because the game's elements are so tightly focused on the gameplay, the player's gaming experience becomes the narrative of Portal. It is also significant to note that when people try to describe Portal, they constantly jump back and forth praising its various elements. It's hard to talk about the portal gun without talking about how the level design accentuates gravity and momentum. It's difficult to talk about the level design without noting that the player is in a stylisticaly bland laboratory research facility. It's nearly impossible to talk about the lab facility without mentioning GLaDOS, the whimsical, mysterious, sarcastic, dangerous voice that guides the player throughout the game. Even then, I couldn't simply describe GLaDOS as a voice played over an intercom system. Anyone who's played the game understands that she is more than a passive comedian interspersing clever one-liners in between levels. The apprehension and distrust toward this voice is a key part of the narrative of Portal.

*The rest of this article contains spoilers*

So we've identified that Portals narrative is built into the experience of the player, and that this experience is guided by level progression like most other games. Before we can analyze and critique Portals narrative, we have to identify which parts of the game are analogous to common elements of literary (or even film) narratives. In Portal, the player takes control of the main character, Chell. Chell uses the portal gun to manipulate her environment to overcome challenges set by Aperture Science, a fictional facility. The purposes of these tests and Aperture Science are shrouded in mystery. The second character is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). GLaDOS is not the narrator, but a character with limited omniscience. Though she informs and guides the player through an intercom system, her limited omniscience is expressed through the placement of cameras that monitor the players progress. Whenever a camera is tampered with by removing it from the wall, the player is informed by GLaDOS not to do so. If, the maintenance of the cameras was integral to maintaining gameplay, as the player proceeds to destroy the cameras, a light scolding is their only consequence. The credibility of the narrator also comes into question very early in the game. GLaDOS tells many lies throughout the game and, when caught in a lie, she casually back peddles her way out of it.

" As part of a previously mentioned required test protocol, we can no longer lie to you."
"The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it."
"Fantastic! You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.
"Have I lied to you? I mean in this room. "

The primary plot in Portal consists of the main character completing a set of challenges. The subplot involves discovering the true nature of the Aperture Science facility. As it turns out, after you complete all the missions, GLaDOS tries to dispose of you through fire and flames. At this point in the game, the plot shifts from a "hero's quest" (in this case the quest for cake) to a quest for freedom. Everything that GLaDOS has told you up to this point can't be trusted. Before, the hidden passages in the walls revealing interesting personal notes from other test subjects who've gone before you, were just whimsical asides. Now "the cake is a lie" means more than a failed promise of dessert. The "cake," GLaDOS, and Aperture Science are all a lie. For the player, everything they've been experiencing and all the puzzles were just a clever ruse. The only way to break free from the lies is to seek the source, GLaDOS.

It is only fitting that the Portals narrative structure simultaneously describes it's design (gameplay) purpose. From Valve's website...

"The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment;"

Using the Portal gun the players sense of perspective shifts from overcoming Chell's individual perspective to overcoming a perspective that encompasses GLaDOS and Aperture Science. Change the word perspective with "environment" and it's clear how the narrative parallels and reinforces the gameplay.

Now that the narrative has been defined, it can be critiqued more traditionally. These are the areas I would focus on and some of the questions I start with.

Psychoanalytic Theory: Can a Computer Feel? Examining GLaDOS psychological state, and the systematic destruction of here colored personality components. Does the red component (at the end of the game) function as GLaDOS's Id? How, if at all, does GLaDOS show signs of repression? Does GLaDOS's limited omniscience as exhibited through the monitoring cameras operate as her conscious mind while Chell (the player) and those who've escaped the confines of the testing facilities operate as the unconscious?

New Criticism: The Truth as I See it Now. Does the game's narrative harmonize into the universal truth of "escape and control only exist in a given perspective"?

Structuralism: Lies (perspective) and Truth (cake). Examine the cycle of perspective generates assumptions that generates lies that generates the breaking into a new perspectives. From the opening of the game (overcoming the escape from a room with no doors), to passing "impossible" tests after tests, to overcoming Aperture science, to the website valve created for providing additional information about Aperture Science, each step follows the cycle. Does the Aperture Website frame the final perspective of the player especially considering it's only accessible after obtaining a code at the end of the game?

Feminism: Where's the Free-man? Does the portrayal of females in Portal support patriarchal values? Where are the male characters? GLaDOS and Chell are female, and GLaDOS also mentions 'take your daughter to work' day. Are the only male characters buried on the markings on the walls in the hidden alternative rooms/closets? If so, what ideologies does it promote. Can GLaDOS's command for Chell to "Place The Device on the ground then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides" be read as the super ego's attempt to pacify Chell, a woman?