I am so mad right now I could just spit. Last night I went to my local sandwich shop, Subatomic Subs, over on App Store Avenue (there’s a field between me and there, but I’m a runner, so it’s no big deal), and guess what I found? My favorite sandwich has been SUPERSIZED, and they expect me to pay a WHOLE NEW PRICE for it, even though I ALREADY PAID FOR THE SMALLER SIZE!!!
Can you even believe that horseshit? I’ve been coming to this place where I can eat my favorite sandwich any time I want at no extra charge since July. Makes sense, right? ‘cos I ALREADY PAID FOR IT. Now, FOR NO GOOD REASON, they want me to PAY THEM AGAIN for their “Huge Deal” (HD) sandwich, which they say is not only bigger, but enhanced with new flavors and takes longer to finish.
WHO ARE YOU KIDDING, SUBATOMIC SUB SHOP??!! You just WANT MY FREAKIN’ MONEY!!! I already paid you ONCE for a sandwich. NO WAY IN HELL am I paying you again for another one. Which do think I am, GULLIBLE OR IGNORANT??!!!
But wait, my day gets even worse. No sooner do I storm out of the place, when I look up and see a sign on the door of my favorite home improvement store, Terraria Depot: “CLOSING SOON” …WTF????!!!! I walk over and pound on the door, finally a guy opens it and says, “Sorry, dude, we’re relocating to a new store over on Console Drive.” I’m like, ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME??!! And he says, all calm and everything, “Hey, no worries. We’re not shutting down this store. We’re just not accepting any more new inventory. You can still come here any time you like.”
Oh, REALLY??!! Hey, buddy, read my lips. I BOUGHT A RAKE AT FULL PRICE here 16 months ago. I PAID MONEY FOR IT!! That makes you ETHICALLY OBLIGATED to service my needs for an unlimited amount of time. What part of that obvious logic don’t you understand?? WAY TO CUT AND RUN, SHYSTER!!
But you know what? The joke’s on you, dummy. Those morons over on Console Drive don’t know a rake from a wrench. If you think you can make money off those mental midgets, GO FOR IT, BRO!!! I’ll be the one smirking on the sidewalk, watching the Console neighborhood numbskull fumble with your doorknob.
The world makes no sense any more, people. I’m checking out of this freak show. SRSLY. Right after I pick up my free underwear upgrade over at Bethesda Bros. Mens Store. This pair I’m wearing is getting old, and I just know those guys won’t disappoint me. Dudes make dragons over there. They gotta be cool. Whatever happens, I know one thing. I am definitely entitled to some new underwear.
If you enjoy thoughtful conversation about games, I hope you're a regular listener to the Experience Points podcast. Every week, Scott Juster and Jorge Albor zero-in on a games related topic and apply their special brand of scrutiny, analysis, and humor. It's a great show hosted by two whip smart guys who know how to stay on-topic.
So it was a special privilege to visit the EXP 'cast for a conversation with Scott and Jorge this week. We discuss my recent post on JRPGs, why we play (or don't play) JRPGs, and why Xenoblade Chronicles may be a pinnacle game for the genre.
We often cite interactivity as the defining characteristic of narrative games. It’s what most clearly separates the medium from its storytelling brethren in Theater and Film. When the good folks at Naughty Dog want us to know what will make The Last of Us special, they say it will unfold like a playable movie. When David Cage talks about his forthcoming game Beyond: Two Souls, he cites the importance of the player controlling both the protagonist and the powerful specter that accompanies her.
Cinematic and dramaturgical influences on such games are obvious, but the presence of a controllable avatar distinguishes games from other media, regardless of how much (Mass Effect 3 - eight alternate endings) or little (Shadow of the Colossus - one definitive ending) the player actually impacts the story.
Manipulating a character with mad skills through a virtual world has never lost its charm for me, but these days I find myself less interested in rolling a character or navigating choose-your-own-adventure narrative trees. Lately I’m drawn to authored characters like Jackie Estacado (The Darkness), Cole Phelps (L.A. Noire), and, most recently, Wei Shen (Sleeping Dogs).
These games hand me a controller, but not full control. I maneuver constructed characters through game worlds, but never fully command them. I relate to them as avatars who respond to my base choices (walk, run, eat, sleep, fight, flee), but I never fully identify with them. I can’t subordinate them to my will, but I’m with them, and I often feel I am them . Wei Shen may do things I don’t like, but until I press “W” he does nothing at all. He essentially ceases to exist. When I give him life, he springs to action and operates by his own rules. Under such conditions, it’s worth asking who is controlling whom.
I’m drawn to these characters and their stories, but I’m more interested by the space between us. This unique space between player and avatar - often dissonant, sometimes disturbingly so - informs my experience playing these games and impacts that experience more subtly than simple interactivity might suggest.
Protagonists with “issues” are all the rage, especially on TV. The four best dramas of the last decade - The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad - all feature deeply flawed central characters who sometimes do very bad things. It’s easy to observe that video games have yet to mine the depths of a Don Draper or a Walter White, but games are less equipped to explore characters in the ways serial dramas do.
What games can do is expose a layer of meaning that doesn’t exist in traditional media. This layer is generated by interactivity that implicates the player/viewer/actor in ways that extend beyond what’s possible in a sender-receiver relationship, ala film and television.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Early on in Sleeping Dogs, Wei Shen meets a beautiful Club hostess named Tiffany. She flirts with Wei, and the game offers the player a chance to sing karaoke with her.
As it does throughout, Sleeping Dogs communicates on several channels at once. In-game, Tiffany represents a means for Wei to infiltrate the Triad via the club’s VIP room. From a player perspective, she’s one of several “girlfriend options,” familiar to anyone who’s played GTA or other similar open-world games. And on a purely ludic level, Tiffany is the conduit to a karaoke mini-game the player may return to play any time.
All these functions trivialize Tiffany - as a minor plot device; as a "collectible”; as the key to an unlockable mini-game - and gamers who’ve met variations of Tiffany in GTA, Saints Row, etc. are unlikely to give her a second thought. Date her, have fun, get her number in your cell phone, and move on to the next girl and the next mission. This is what Wei Shen does in Sleeping Dogs.
Several hours and at least two girlfriend options later, Wei Shen meets a man named Calvin waiting for him outside his apartment. The man informs Wei that Tiffany has been cheating on him.
Calvin: I’ve got some bad news for you. You know Tiffany? From the club? She’s been stepping out. Seeing Longfinger Chau on the side.
Wei: What? There’s no way.
Calvin: Listen, man. I overheard her talking on the payphone outside her place. I guess she’s keeping him off her cell.
And so begins a mission called "Red-Handed Tiffany." The player must locate the payphone Tiffany has been using, bug the handset, and listen in on her conversation with another man. With proof in hand, Wei Shen segues to a mission called “Following Tiffany” and finally confronts her:
Wei: Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?
Tiffany: Oh! So the big Triad gangster is mad now? Only the big Triad gangster can sleep with other people?… You think you can fool around on me and I don’t care?
Wei: She didn’t mean anything to me. That was just part of work.
Tiffany: Work? You think I’m an idiot? You think you can go around jumping into other girls whenever you feel like it? Well, what’s good for yang is good for yin.
Wei: Okay, okay. Look, I’m sorry, alright? I never meant for you to get hurt.
Tiffany: Hah! Some excuse. So you going to dump her now? Stay loyal to me? Or do I have to go find another man to keep me warm?
Wei: Let me see what I can do.
Tiffany: You know… I thought you were different. I guess not. Goodbye. (She walks away)
Suddenly, “player” takes on unexpected connotations. Tiffany justifiably accuses Wei Shen (and me) of blithely playing the field while expecting her to be available whenever Wei (or I) wants to see her. Sleeping Dogs turns the tables on player and avatar. Watching Tiffany sadly walk away, I was struck by the hard reality that I was no less guilty of hypocrisy than Wei Shen. I sought other girlfriends when the options presented themselves, and I bugged the payphone, eager to test her fidelity.
But it doesn’t end there. Being an open world game, Sleeping Dogs lets me choose what happens next. In a virtual environment with no real-world consequences, I’m free to respond to Tiffany’s rejection of Wei/me any way I want, as is any player who completes the mission. Observe the behavior of this player (whom I don’t know) in the same situation. (Watch for 60 secs.)
Intriguing, eh? I want to know what went through this player's mind in the pivotal moment of decision. I want to know what made him consider it, and what made him stop.
This space between player and avatar (and more importantly, what emerges there) is rich with possibilities games have only begun to explore. Of course, it's possible for players to disengage from reflection or deliberation and simply blow through a game like Sleeping Dogs without thinking about ethics, narrative, or dissonance. If fact, maybe jettisoning those concerns is just another useful function of a sandbox game that doesn't insist on such deliberation to "beat the game."
But the Tiffany missions (and other parts of the game) suggest its developers targeted that space between me and Wei Shen, inviting reflection and even reconsideration of how narrative games provoke us to think, feel, and choose. It models a kind of interactivity that mingles opposites: control and chaos, resonance and dissonance. Perhaps the real success of Sleeping Dogs - unlike GTA IV or L.A. Noire - is that it makes that space a place I want to be.
Modern games deftly conceal their complexity. Developers apply extraordinary expertise rounding edges off the spiky systems that underlie most games. We routinely praise games like the Mass Effect and Civilization series for balancing depth and accessibility, offering players a degree of control that makes them feel powerful, but not overwhelmed. Games that fail to strike this balance are typically described as awkward, difficult, or vaguely “old-school.”
The problem with this design approach is that it tends to sacrifice a kind of complexity many of us value. Too often ‘accessible’ translates as ‘easier.’ Such an approach may offer a safe landing for new and casual players, but for those of us who recall a prior console era populated with more intricate titles, it can be hard to find the kind of satisfaction we used to feel playing mainstream console games.
That’s why many of us play JRPGs. Despite all the ways developers have conspired to kill the genre - the formulaic design rut, the narrative clichés, the calcification of once-innovative franchises - we continue to seek out these offbeat games, finding meaning in the experiences they deliver. Sometimes that meaning arrives via characters and storytelling - JRPGs have long explored narrative spaces ignored by other genres - but more often it comes through the systems at the core of an expertly designed JRPG.
A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player’s mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I’m determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game’s rules. Nothing new here.
But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I’ve cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.
I care on multiple levels at once. Yes, I want to know how the story comes out, but in the big picture that’s only a small part of what’s in it for me. I play JRPGs for essentially the same reasons my uncle tinkers with cars in his garage. It’s not about where you drive the car; it’s about making that motor purr the way you want.
“If you can’t drive a stick shift, you don’t know how to drive.” –My uncle Larry teaching me to drive his truck, circa 1982.
The more a game exposes its systems to me, the more possibilities I see to fully invest myself in that experience. Many of these systems could be simplified or automated, but I often don’t want that. I like to lift the hood and work on the motor myself. I want to drive my own way and feel the engine propelling me.
This is what the best JRPGs do. They let us feel the power and responsiveness of their systems, and they give us fun-to-use tools to access those systems. Complexity is a welcome trait in a game that encourages me to skillfully exploit its systems. For many of us, this is the real allure of gaming across genres. It’s why assiduously avoiding “spoilers” has never really made sense to me.
Lest anyone doubt the possibility of a new JRPG doing all the things I’ve described, along comes Xenoblade Chronicles, the best pure RPG of this generation. Tom Chick calls it “a landmark achievement in the genre,” and he’s right. Better than any game I can think of, Xenoblade Chronicles embraces its systemic elements and enables players to leverage them in fun, consequential ways.
60+ hours in, the game continues to astonish me with its conciseness and vision. No grinding, no superfluous subplots, no drippy sentimentality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi has fashioned a JRPG that preserves what serious players love about the genre and jettisons the stuff JRPG detractors hate. By focusing on relationships (character to character, and characters to world) he has found a way to render narrative from a level-up system. More importantly, he has created a world that, literally, conveys the values his game explores.
OthershavereviewedXenoblade Chronicles more meticulously, and I encourage you to read them. If you decide to play the game, I’ll offer one bit of advice: grab the Dolphin emulator, rip the game from your Wii disc, and play it on your computer in HD bliss. Xenoblade is a beautiful game with a vast world that beckons you to explore it, but the Wii’s limited resolution does it no favors. Do yourself a favor and run it through Dolphin if you can. Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the best visual treatment you can give it. A community-driven HD retexture project is also underway.
Tomorrow another ambitious JRPG arrives in North America, conceived by another veteran designer: Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I look forward to my first peak under the hood.
Good teachers know something about kids that most game developers have yet to learn: don’t underestimate them. Don’t equate accessible with dumbed down. Pitch high and they will reach.
Child-focused games tend to be bouncy boilerplate trifles meant to appeal to kids’ imaginations - and there’s certainly fun to be had clicking and poking around a kid-friendly environment - but too many kids games rely on flash-card pedagogy that quickly wears thin.
It turns out that young kids (I’m mainly focusing on preschool and young elementary age) desire the same rich experiences that adults seek in video games: content discoverable through play, activities that feel rewarding, mechanics that offer fun things to do, and a sense of richness that suggests the game is always waiting for the player to return and continue her journey.
Another thing we know about kids: whatever “age appropriate” game, toy, or book you give them, they will always seek access to the age-level above them. This doesn’t mean one should allow a 5-year-old to watch a PG–13 movie, but you can be sure he will want to, and some PG–13 movies may be perfectly suited to certain 5-year-olds. The point is, kids are hard-wired to grow up. They aspire to do things they’re not ready to do. This is a good thing, and it’s possible to feed this natural aspiration with activities that may seem out of reach, but excel at offering a child meaningful play.
My daughter Zoe is four and a half years old. We heeded the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and prevented her exposure to television (and all screens) for her first two years. After that, I began letting her play with a Wii controller, rolling a bowling ball in Wii Sports and gathering stars in Super Mario Galaxy. She also played a few preschool-oriented games on my DS and iPhone. Her interest in these games lasted about nine months.
Soon Zoe began asking to watch me play games like Epic Mickey, Costume Quest, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Obviously, I played other games after bedtime, but these were quality titles I was happy for her to see me play, and I liked the fact that they were all reasonably safe content-wise. Then one day she saw me playing Portal 2, and her days of watching were over. She wanted that controller in her hands, and she wanted to blast portals pronto.
Kids quickly learn that parents save the best stuff for themselves. Zoe is happy to while away twenty minutes with a Dora game, but she knows whatever I’m playing is likely to be a hundred times more interesting, and she wants a piece of that action. Some games are clearly off-limits no matter what, but other games one might deem inappropriate for kids may not be, if handled properly.
Case in point: The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. For the last month, Zoe and I have been adventuring our way through the ancient home of the Nords after dinner most nights. In fact, as she will happily tell you, we own a house in Whiterun where she has her own room, her own bookshelf full of books she has collected, and her own horse. She delights in her role as “dragon sentry,” and she prides herself on the fact that she always notices the appearance of a dragon before I do.
Skyrim is an incredibly fertile playground for a child if an adult is prepared to do a little advance work. If you’d like to give it a try, here are a few tips to make the most of your experience:
Use Skyrim’s ‘save anywhere, anytime’ system to screen for content. Play a side-quest, visit a town, speak to NPCs and see what lies ahead for a play session. If all looks good, re-load and invite your child to join you. Bethesda’s “radiant story” system can throw you a few curves, but playing ahead of your child will usually prevent any nasty surprises. Warning: When a grouchy librarian asks you to locate some stolen books, don’t assume it’s a kid-friendly quest. You may find yourself in Fellglow Keep knee-deep in vampires, gory dead bodies, and puddles of blood.
Determine together an ethical code of conduct to guide your actions. Zoe and I never attack defenseless animals or non-threatening NPCs. We always try to help people who ask for it. Occasionally this backfires when a character is duplicitous, but there are lessons there too. Early on, Zoe wondered what would happen if we attacked a city guard. We spent the rest of our play session in jail, exhausting our supply of lockpicks trying to escape. That was our last attack on a friendly NPC.
PC or console, give your kid a gamepad. YMMV here (and I don’t mean to feed the PC vs console war), but Zoe grew frustrated trying to manage a mouse-WASD control scheme. A gamepad better suits her small hands and she loves using the triggers to “do magic.”
Set your child loose, and let her explore. Skyrim is full of wonderful things to do. Catch butterflies. Pick flowers. Follow a deer. Count the stars. Climb a mountain. Be a photographer. Zoe and I have spent many evenings scouting Giants and Mammoths for screenshots, or watching the sun rise and set, or enticing Frost Trolls to chase us through the snow.
Learn cartography. Thanks to Skyrim, Zoe knows North from South and East from West. She’s learning how to read a map, choose a destination, and chart a course. Fast travel is out of the question. Zoe insists we walk or ride our horse everywhere. I appreciate the purity of her system, but I’m hoping she changes her mind about this soon.
Be a mage. I prefer Zoe casting spells to wielding swords and axes. It feels less ‘realistic’ to me and more suitable for a child. Zoe likes hurling fireballs and lightning bolts at nothing in particular, but she especially enjoys conjuring zombies and casting Magelight, which she calls her “magic flashlight.” We don’t steer clear of all combat (animals and the occasional bandit inevitably attack), but eliminating them with magic feels less brutal than close combat with blades. I probably have a blind spot here, but I it works for me.
Let your child discover there can be more than one way to solve a problem. I spared Zoe the Fellglow Keep gore, but let her face The Caller boss at the end of the quest for a reason. We were given the choice of fighting her or negotiating with her, but we found a third option we liked better. We cast an Invisibility spell, grabbed the stolen books, picked her pocket for the exit key, and escaped the dungeon. “We were smarter than her, Daddy!” You bet we were.
Craft one thing. I explained to Zoe that she could make things from items we collect. Instead of thinking in terms of Smithing, Enchanting, etc., I asked her what she most liked to collect. She chose Flowers, so now we’re learning recipies for potions, which we make in our Alchemy lab in Whiterun and sell to the Wizard Farengar in Dragonsreach. Zoe may not yet fully grasp the U.S. currency system, but she knows exactly how many Septims we possess in Skyrim.
If you’ve finished Skyrim, you’ve already done the prep work for playing the game with a child. You’ll know which parts of the game are suitable and which aren’t. Just remember that a small child thinks less about leveling up or RPG mechanics, and more about having fun, moment to moment, in an imaginary world. Skyrim offers many such possibilities, as do other well-designed games. If you discover playful options I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to know about them. Zoe and I are always looking for more adventures.
Once I was a proper geek. I played tabletop sims. I built my own computers. I copied code from Creative Computing magazine. I loaded Pool of Radiance from a 5¼" floppy disc. I was a BBS SysOp. A geek with bells on.
And I was a PC gamer. Sure, I played PONG on my Atari, and when the NES came along I loved Mario as much as anyone. But geeks like me considered that beige box a charming toy compared to our PCs with VGA graphics and FM synthesis sound. When iD gave us Wolfenstein 3D, our status as a gaming platform was secured. Serious gamers played PC games.
The SNES was harder to ignore, especially with all those wonderfully quirky JRPGs, but we had Myst to reassure us of our PC gaming potency, not to mention LucasArts and whatever inspired goodness Will Wright might dream up.
The Playstation changed everything. Metal Gear Solid and PaRappa the Rapper sunk their hooks in me, and I spent the next seventeen years loading discs into machines attached to televisions. Every now and then Blizzard, or Looking Glass, or Valve might lure me into a brief addiction, but my console conversion was irreversible. Or so I thought.
Something happened to me at E3 last month. I felt embarrassed. Old. Contemptuous, even. The stultifying homogeneity, the leering crowd, the endless power tripping targeting an adolescent demographic I felt no connection to. I wrote about a few notable exceptions in my previous post, but I left E3 feeling like I needed to scrub most of what I saw there off me.
When I arrived home, I bought a new PC. At the time, I didn't think of it as a remedy to my post-E3 woes. My old PC was so decrepit, it choked on decade-old games. It was time to replace it. But as I've burrowed deeper into a collection of PC titles, I've begun to realize that I'm not simply testing out my snappy new system. I'm finding refuge in these PC games. I'm reminding myself why games have brought me so much joy over the years and why they remain so worthy of our attention. I'm also more keenly aware of the distorted picture E3 paints of a game industry far more diverse than our coverage of it often suggests.
I don't mean this as a derisive dismissal of console gaming or a diatribe against violent games. I've written many rhapsodies to console games, some of them absurdly violent. If anything, I could be accused of overlooking PC games since I began writing here five years ago.
But as the three consoles near the end of their life-cycles and developers double down on a narrow palette of titles, the distinctions between console and PC games have never been more clear. For me, the differences boil down to three pivotal characteristics: Depth, Customization, and Community.
The PC games I've been playing lately challenge me to think critically and creatively, invite me to play with them in ways that transcend their primary mechanics, and make me feel part of a community that genuinely impacts these games and my experiences playing them.
A few examples (to keep this post manageable, I'm omitting two intriguing MMOs - The Secret World and TERA, which I've played, but haven't spent suffient time with yet).
Endless Space No game better exemplifies the virtues of community involvement than Endless Space. Last February, the Parisian developers of this 4X space sim posted their design documents online and invited players to help them shape their game. 50,000+ forum posts later, Amplitude Studios releases on Steam the best space sim since Alpha Centauri. Look past its generic name and don't assume complex means inaccessible. Crowd-sourced design is a field littered with land mines, but these guys have figured out how to make it work by holding fast to their vision, remaining open to useful input, fostering consensus, and maintaining a positive and respectful forum environment.
Dwarf Fortress The game everyone knows, but few have played for more than a few maddening minutes. This roguelike city-builder thrashes you with baroque mechanics wrapped in an arcane ASCII interface. Then, if you're still breathing, it buries you in a cascade of micromanagement complexity. I mean, when a dwarf dies, he doesn't simply vanish. You build his coffin, dig his grave, and bury him in it. With your keyboard.
So where's the fun? Like many PC games, the glory of Dwarf Fortress is its ongoing refinement and the extraordinarily generous ways its loyal community has helped new players understand and appreciate its open-ended design. Dwarf Fortress is a formidable game, but it helps to have a sensei at your side teaching you how to embrace its unbending nature and discover the beauty in its complexity. I found mine in a soft-spoken fellow called DJ Fogey, who methodically teaches total noobs how to play Dwarf Fortress (and make use of helpful community mods) in a series of YouTube tutorials.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim Without expecting to, I've sunk dozens of hours into Skyrim lately, but not in the way you might expect. I played the PS3 version when it was released and completed the main questline. On my racy new PC, I'm not playingSkyrim so much as playing withSkyrim. I've become a mod connoisseur, applying a self-directed metagame that envelops the Bethesda design. How gorgeous can I make this game world look? What's the best way to arrange my Nexus Manager load order to best exploit each mod? What if I play relying only on a topographic map with no quest markers? Does adding the "Hardcore Survival" mod make the game more fun, or just more work?
Once again, the community steps up to make these questions worth asking. I'm a daily visitor to Skyrim Nexus, which hosts nearly 18,000 mods by 7000+ authors, with downloads exceeding 18 million files. And I subscribe to this fellow's "Skyrim Mod Sanctuary," a series of YouTube vids featuring the latest and best Skyrim mods.
I don't mean to suggest that console games lack communities supporting them, nor do I believe console games, by their nature, lack depth or complexity. Conversely, PCs can host shooters, escapist entertainment, puzzlers, platformers, etc. Obviously.
But PC game developers are responding to the stagnant console landscape by extending the PC platform's natural affinity for games that provoke us to think, build, and communicate. In one sense, this is nothing new. PC games have done this for decades. But as casual (and not so casual) games proliferate and mature on handheld devices - at a price point to make Satoru Iwata blanch - it becomes harder to see how console games can continue to define their commercial space as easily as PC games.
Market analysis ain't my bag, so I'll leave it to Michael Pachter and Co. to prognosticate. All I know is, I'm back in the PC gamer fold and happy to be so.
E3 killed my desire to play games. After three days of wandering two massive expo halls filled with games, I found myself gripped by a powerful urge to hug my analog family and flee into analog nature dual-wielding analog sticks equipped with analog marshmallows.
E3 is about whetting our appetite to play video games, not recoil from them, right? What happened? I'll explain. Happily, my story has an upbeat ending.
As an event aimed squarely at 14-year-old boys, E3 can make a guy like me wonder if I belong there. It can also make one wonder if we've made any progress, aside from technical, in 30 years of game development.
We have, of course, but when you see a line of guys waiting for their chance to be photographed next to an unfortunate $12/hr shlub posing as Master Chief, or gameplay footage captioned with "After getting her groove on with the stripper pole, Juliet beheads some zombie patrons," you wonder. I'm not cherry-picking, folks. E3 2012 offered up heaping helpings of ludicrous flimflam. No point in imperious smirking. It is what it is. Fish in a barrel.
Belonging, and not The fact is, I probably don't belong at E3. My first request for a media badge was turned down because the E3 organizers didn't consider Brainy Gamer "industry-focused"...and they're probably right. Nowhere in its requirements for media affiliation does E3 mention anything about game critics. A generous plea on my behalf from Ben Fritz at the L.A. Times secured my badge, and I was genuinely thrilled to attend my first E3. Even as I write this, I fear I'm being ungracious. I hope not.
Describing E3 as overwhelming is like calling a tornado "windy." It’s a pounding audiovisual circus. Sensory overload typically hit me after an hour on the show floor, so I regularly retreated to the media lounge to detox and gather myself for a few minutes. Then it was back into the breach for more ludic bacchanalia. Don't get me wrong. It was fun, sort of like gorging on the bucket-full of candy you bring home on Halloween as a kid. But when the bellyache hits, that Tootsie Roll don't look so good.
What, me worry? It's easy to be worried about video games these days. CNBC wonders "is the videogame industry dying?" Nintendo reported its first annual operating loss in 30 years. Smart people who love games are concerned. Warren Spector says the ultraviolence has finally gone too far. "I think we're just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature. It's time to stop." Women and people of color continue to be underrepresented in the industry, and many still feel shut out or undervalued by the community.
Some people read my previous post as an anti-shooter rant, but that's not how I intended it. I have nothing against shooters per se. Halo 4 was easily one of the best games I saw at E3 this year, and I can't wait to see how 343 Industries implements its plan for episodic releases. The multiplayer demo I played was smooth and silky FPS-ness at its best.
The problem is homogeneity, and this year's event was essentially about watching publishers run one shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. Aisle after aisle of games with guns isn't ethically problematic. It's worse than that. It's boring."
Tomorrow, the Game Critics Awards will be announced, honoring the "best of E3 2012." Of the 30+ journalists invited to judge the games at E3, only one is a woman (Fran Reyes, EIC of Official Xbox Magazine). With so many informed female and transgendered voices to choose from, it's inconceivable that E3's organizers cling to an outmoded old boys network of voices.1
It's tempting to read E3 as a barometer of the entire game industry. Nearly all the major developers are there (plus an increasing number of indies), and media coverage breathlessly delivers timed announcements as breaking news:
"Hey guys, you don't wanna miss this. We've got in-game footage YOU WON'T BELIEVE of the new Splinter Cell! This will undoubtedly be one of the best games you'll play next year!"
That's a game journalist describing six minutes of gameplay, demoed by a Ubisoft representative, of an unfinished game no one has yet played. News commingles with hype at E3, and it's often impossible to separate the reporting from the selling.
I may not be the target audience for E3, but I'm grateful I was there to see it first-hand. If you want to understand how the game industry works and what its messaging says about that industry, E3 is an essential place to be. It's not easy, but if you can see past the booth babes and fever-pitched hype, you’ll find some intriguing things happening at E3, mainly in the margins.
Highlights I met the 4-person dev team behind Papo & Yo and played their remarkably beautiful game. I chatted at-length with the lead animator of Klei's Mark of the Ninja, a game that looked and played like no other game on the floor. I played The Unfinished Swan with its creator, Ian Dallas, standing next to me, discussing what he's learned from watching people play his game.
Several AAA games impressed me too. I mentioned Halo 4 above. I also attended David Cage's live demo of Beyond: Two Souls, and I'm eager to play it, Heavy Rain comparisons be damned. Far Cry 3 gets more enticing the more I learn about it, and the Wii U looked and felt much better than I expected. At an expo full of sameness, Nintendo's booth was dotted with game ideas that felt fresh and fun.
Best of all, I'm happily playing games again, and I have E3 to thank for that too. I'll explain why in my next post. For now I'll just say that what I'm playing, where I'm playing, and how I'm playing have all changed for the better. More soon. Happy gaming!
1. According to Game Critics Awards judge Gary Steinman (EIC of Games Radar) on Official Playstation Blogcast, Episode 27.
"It's abundantly clear that we're living in the age of the shooter. The category dominates sales charts...gripping audiences with its versatility. The stories we remember most end up being told down the barrel of a gun." --GameTrailers
For over a decade - beginning in 1949 and ending in the mid-1960s - Westerns ruled the small screen. In 1959, 26 Westerns aired each week during prime-time. In March of that year, eight of the top ten shows were Westerns.
The same period was also the golden age of Hollywood Westerns (The Searchers, Shane, High Noon, Rio Bravo) with many of America’s greatest filmmakers producing their best work in the genre: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, William Wyler, among others.
But it didn’t last. History rarely offers a precise road map, but it can sometimes point us in a useful direction. The decline of the Western - the causes of its near-demise, and its reemergence in other guises - are worth noting because I believe shooter games are on a similar trajectory. It will be 1959 at E3 next week, and we will find ourselves awash in barely distinguishable shooters. But it won’t last. It can’t last, and that’s a good and necessary thing.
Westerns began to disappear in the late 1960s for reasons relevant to modern game developers: 1) Genre fatigue and homologous products; 2) High cost of production; 3) Public outcry over violence; 4) Narrow target audience.
Each of these factors apply to contemporary shooter games, but the most threatening is the mind-numbing sameness of these games. We’ve reached a saturation point where the dismissive cliché has become a valid claim: they all look the same. When a genre sustains itself by promoting minor tweaks as revolutionary features - and its hardcore fans claim ownership that typically resists change - death looms.
It’s worth noting, however, that death doesn’t necessarily mean disappearance. Gunsmoke, TV’s longest-running prime-time drama, died somewhere around 1965...and ran for another decade. It’s also worth noting that CBS received many letters from fans who opposed the series’ transition to color in 1966, claiming it would ruin the show’s rustic nature. Fanboys defending the realm are nothing new.
"We ask ourselves: if there wasn’t anyone to shoot in the game, could it still be fun?" --Jason Vandenberghe, Narrative Director, Far Cry 3
Want more evidence shooter games are mired in similitude? Here are publisher-penned descriptions of key features contained in their games, all released or forthcoming this year. See if you can identify the games. (Names and titles are xx’d out)
“QUAD-WIELDING CHAOS - Slash, grab, and throw objects and enemies...while simultaneously firing two weapons, adding a new dimension to the FPS category.”
“From automatics to handguns to rifles and explosives, XX wields (and dual-wields) a wide range of high-powered weaponry in both single player and multiplayer. XX provides devastating firepower for any and all situations that call for decisive and punishing action.”
“Alternate Aiming Perspectives — Players can choose the shooting style that suits them with the ability to alternate between first and third person views to best pinpoint enemies"
“Pervasive Environmental Destruction - XX has been specifically designed to allow for maximum destructibility using the “Havok Destruction” module. Blast through the environments, target your enemies’ cover blasting it to bits or even knock down overhead objects to crush the enemy below."
"Blast your way in and utilize your military grade DART6 chip to breach enemies and the environment as you battle for market dominance and your life. Some takeovers are more hostile than others.”
"50 WEAPONS, ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES - Get unlimited access to the most advanced arsenal in the world, with over 50 weapons including highly customizable assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Choose from a wide variety of grenades to suit your mission objectives and context."
"When I remember Half-Life 2 I don't remember just shooting things, I remember moments, like the escape from the boat, or crossing the bridge, or investigating the farm or invading the prison." --4A Games’ Huw Beynon on the forthcoming Metro 2033: Last Light.1
So what happens when 1959 ends? Again, history could prove prophetic. The second wave of Western filmmakers (Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood) turned our deep familiarity with the genre in on itself, addressing existential questions and examining the nature of violence. These films were radical departures from the Hollywood formula, not because they rejected the familiar settings or the guns or the hero/villain dichotomy, but because they made these the very subjects of their scrutiny.
This is precisely where Rockstar has tried, but mostly failed, to go with its recent genre-inspired games. Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire contain the stylistic trappings of their filmic influences, but little of the complexity. To be fair, the interactive dimension goes a long way toward bridging this gap, and RDR, especially, makes inhabiting John Marston feel more personal than any film could hope to do.
But it’s Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 that most painfully illustrates the shooter ball and chain. I’ve played many games I wish had skippable cutscenes. Max Payne 3 is the first to make me long for skippable action. Buried under hours of conventional designer-charted gunfights is a story with genuine noir sensibility, not merely cosmetic style. Rockstar jettisoned the campy (and easier to manage) noir-esque style of the previous Max Payne games in favor of something far more Robert Mitchum. Max takes weary self-loathing to new depths.
Consequently, it’s heartbreaking to see a character as potentially compelling as Max dropped off at a “shithole” hotel in the 3rd Act and instructed to “clear the place out” as if it was essential to the narrative. It isn’t, and I know it, Rockstar knows it...we all know it. The Imperial Palace Hotel is just another gunplay funhouse with waves of baddies for me to defeat. What a shame and what a waste.
Max Payne 3 is a game devastatingly at war with itself. All its smart, gutsy, genre-savvy ideas are wiped out in a bulletstorm of shooter game orthodoxy.
It’s High Noon for shooters, or as a certain Minnesota cowboy would say, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”
Games described above: 1. The Darkness 2, 2. Max Payne 3, 3. Resident Evil Revelations, 4. Inversion, 5. Syndicate, 6. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
Diablo 3 is exactly the kind of game I should hate. Blizzard’s latest dungeon-crawling loot-fest relies on a checklist of design elements that typically drive me screaming into the night:
Derivative design We can’t accuse Blizzard of stealing from itself, but Diablo 3 is an essentially conservative game. It iterates on its predecessors in obvious ways - graphics, UI, streamlined path to leveling up, etc. - but in most of the ways that matter, Diablo 3 is a dressed up version of Diablo 2.
Repetitive play Click-Loot-Upgrade-Repeat. Diablo 3’s repetitiveness is woven through its design on both micro and macro levels. Everything you do in this game, you do over and over. Coins spill, and you pick them up. Every time. Stimulus. Operanda. Reinforcement. Skinner is grinning.
Sententious “lore” with no meaningful impact on gameplay. Diablo 3 throws a few winks at the player, but it doesn’t stray far from threadbare fantasy tropes. For the umpteenth time we must locate soulstones, defeat demon lords, assemble shattered swords - all to defeat Eeeviiil. I’m a narrative-loving player, but even I find myself challenged to pay attention to the arch codswallop this game dispenses.
Choking feedback loops When designers talk about gluing players to games, they inevitably reference the Diablo series and its effective feedback loops. Such loops occur when a player takes an action and receives information about that action, which in turn encourages the player to alter his choices or behavior the next time that action is performed. I appreciate the gamey-ness of this system, but Diablo 3’s feedback loops are so embedded into its design that they’re in my face at every turn, and many of them feel only cosmetically significant. I like meaningful choices, but this game taps me on the shoulder with the frequency of a 4-year-old in the toy aisle at Target.
DRM handcuffs Developers should not constrain where and when I can play my game. Lots of folks have complained about this, so I won’t rehash the argument here. If I want to play Diablo 3 solo, I shouldn’t be required to login to a developer’s server and maintain that connection throughout my play session…unless the game has a crucial reason for doing so that benefits me. So far, I can’t discern such a reason. A game that requires twitch reflexes should not suffer from lag that prevents me from playing it properly. In other words, it should not make me die.
So... A funny thing happened on my way to hating Diablo 3. It hooked me. Deep. Here I am, an hour into Act II, and the game is playing me as much as I’m playing it, like all the best games do. I play Diablo 3 when I should be doing other things. Like sleeping. I think about it when I should be paying attention to other things. Like driving. Last night I dreamed about my childhood backyard…in isometric view.
Diablo 3 overrides all my misgivings because it’s just so damned much fun. We often decry the game industry’s stubborn unwillingness to evolve, dishing out the same old stuff over and over. Sometimes, however, the same old stuff - and Diablo 3 is unmistakably SOS - hits the mark so squarely and elegantly that it quenches a thirst I forgot I had.
It is retro gaming without the stench of lazy design “retro” too often signifies. Diablo has always been retro (remember Wizardry, folks?), but the series has consistently looked forward too, mechanically and aesthetically. Watch Blizzard’s Christian Lichtner talk about Diablo 3’s art design at this year’s GDC to see how Blizzard’s artists developed a philosophy for the game’s visuals that carefully blended old and new.
The game doles out a skill or special trinket every time you level up. Loot is more varied, the environments are more visually stimulating, and the monsters are more interesting and fun to beat than in Diablo 2. Killing twelve enemies at once with one kick-ass spell never gets old. The music is beautifully evocative, and the character animations make the old Diablo games look, well, very old. If you experience any initial concerns about Diablo 3 being too easy or predictable, hang on until Act II. Trust me, things change.
I drank a bottle of Coca-Cola the other day. Wow. That is some good SOS. I remember now why I used to enjoy it so much. I don't drink soda any more, and I don’t plan to fill my refrigerator with Cokes, but I’m glad it’s still there when I’m thirsty for it.
Not every successful developer operates so conservatively. In my next post, I’ll discuss a game by another AAA studio bent on pushing the design envelope in ways Blizzard can’t or won’t. If Blizzard is the Ronald Reagan of developers, this studio is the industry’s Ted Kennedy. I hope you'll stay tuned.
If forceful writing inspires assessment and introspection - with a dash of outrage and resistance - Taylor Clark’s Atlantic profile of Jonathan Blow was potent stuff. I responded here, aided by 350 readers who contributed entries to my "Smart Game" Catalog. A hearty thanks to all who helped! More on that project soon.
Others posted their own thoughts - I especially enjoyed Matthew Burns’ reflections on the “mysterious barrier” designers face and Darshana Jayemanne’s essay for Kill Screen Daily, which expands the focus beyond “smart” or “dumb” to suggest we jettison our limiting thinking about games:
Inevitability and irreversibility--either there’s a straight line plotted out for you by an artistic genius, or it isn’t art... [I]t's time to jettison “nonlinear” in favor of a range of more specific terms... Thinking past “nonlinearity” will help us to explore videogames without either overstating their novelty or foreclosing on their future.
Clark himself returned with a helpful follow-up essay for Kotaku that clarified his position on why he thinks so many games are “dumb”: “What I wrote came not from ignorance or contempt, but from frustration with the state of big-budget gaming.” He goes on to explain why he finds so many games excruciatingly unsophisticated:
My issue, then, is with what we might call the intellectual maturity level of mainstream games. It's not the design mechanics under the hood that I find almost excruciatingly sophomoric at this point; it's the elements of these games that bear on human emotion and intellectual sophistication, from narrative and dialogue right on down to their core thematic concepts.
Voices voicing If you write a blog called “Brainy Gamer,” I guess you’re expected to jump into these debates with both feet, and I’m happy to do it. It’s a dialogue worth pursuing because spirited deliberation on the nature of games signals an art form continuing to expand its own definition of itself. I continue to see an industry (broadly defined) responding to voices within and outside its circle of creators, and that’s a good thing.
Obviously, not every voice rings with clarity, but if you’re looking for insightful writing about games, it’s never been easier to find. Check out yesterday’s edition of The Sunday Papers, Rock, Paper Shotgun’s weekly compilation of essays on games, and you will find 12 (twelve!) stellar articles devoted to games written in just the last week. Critical Distance continues to comb the web for thoughtful writing about games, and it never fails to promote terrific pieces on games from a variety of perspectives.
The video game difference Search for recent conversations about journalism, and you’ll find endless hand-wringing essays about the death of print media, the difficulty of monetizing online journalism, etc. Perform similar searches for film, television, books, and you’ll find the same thing. It’s a transitional period, and big media continues to spin its wheels, mired in rights management and distribution issues. The arguments are mostly about money, and analytical coverage tends to focus on ownership, licensing, profitability, etc. What Disney the studio makes, for example, gets less critical scrutiny than how Disney the corporation is run.
Video games conversations aren’t like that. Sure, you can find plenty of coverage devoted to earnings, digital distribution, and corporate health (with Sony and Nintendo in the crosshairs lately), but the vibrant dialogue exchange in the video game space is mostly about the games. Diablo 3’s visual style matters a lot to lots of people. What precisely constitutes an “indie game” can get folks riled up.
Say what you will about the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. From a political and sociological perspective (heck, let’s throw in rhetorical too), it was a fascinating picture of passionate and devoted content-consumers exerting influence and, more importantly, community ownership, on a powerful content-producer. Did BioWare surrender its artistic integrity? Do players have a right to demand an ending they find suitable? What does “game ending” even mean when applied to a branching narrative experience? These are genuinely interesting questions, and they’re typical of the questions that frame much of the broad and ongoing conversation about games. This, too, is a good thing.
It's good to ruminate Lately I’ve noticed some writers leading off their essays on “games as art” or other ruminations on game aesthetics with something like “I know everybody’s sick of this topic by now, but…” That’s a shame. We should stop doing that. Yes, maybe we pounded the “Ebert hates games” nail for too long, and maybe we sometimes dig ratholes leading nowhere.
But Taylor Clark did us a favor when he decried “dumb games” because he sent us scrambling to prove him wrong and to define what makes certain games “smart.” When Tom Bissell wonders, as he did last week, “why so many look at this game [The Witcher 2] and see a pinnacle rather than a careworn template fast-receding” he drives Witcher 2 fans to their keyboards to articulate, with evidence from their own experiences, why he is wrong. I’m sure he knew this would happen, and that, too, is a good thing.
I wish we wrangled over the American Theater this way. That conversation occurs in cafes and at restaurant tables, but nowhere to the degree or depth that I see happen regularly about games. I can have a vigorous chat with my fellow academics at a theater conference, but, really, what’s the point of that? It’s an island we visit once a year, and then we all return home.
If Theater is high art in an echo chamber, and video games are low art in a cacophony, I’ll take the cacophony. The great video game conversation is happening 24/7 worldwide - rants, fanboys, and flamewars included. It's a wholesome cacophony and an irrepressible sign of life.
There's no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb… In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding. --Atlantic Magazine profile of Jonathan Blow, May '12
It’s hard not to see Taylor Clark’s recent Atlantic essay as a sharp slap in the face to all of us who don’t believe all video games are “juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy” and aren’t peering at the horizon awaiting the “Citizen Kane of video games."
Clark, presumably channeling his subject’s well-known contempt for mindless derivative design, berates the entire medium, industry, and community of gamers with a cruel flick of his pen. Predictably, the Twitterverse and discussion forums erupted in outrage, with angry gamers accusing Clark of ignorance, elitism, condescension…and worse. Clark's critique has validity, but his sweeping generalizations and dismissive rhetoric undermine his assertions and obscure an otherwise fascinating portrait of an important designer.
So, how best to respond to such an inflammatory essay? I have one idea that I’ll pitch in a moment. But first a few thoughts about Clark's assertions.
Mainstream media is always “dumb.” It’s easy to point at a critical darling like Mad Men and say “See how smart TV can be?” Do you know how many people in the U.S. actually watch Mad Men? 2.5 million. That’s a decent number for cable, but a meager 2.5 million viewers would get Mad Men canceled if it ran on a major network.
Twice as many people watch reruns of Jersey Shore than watch first-run episodes of Mad Men. Three times as many watch Judge Judy. As I write this, the #1 movie in America is Think Like a Man, and the #1 book is “Guilty Wives.” We consume lots of pablum. We always have. Why should video games be any different? Clark's contention that games are even dumber than dumb movies makes no sense to me. Dumb is dumb.
Clark is looking at the wrong games. I hope Mr. Clark will attend IndieCade or Games for Change this year. I hope he will chat with other designers besides Jonathan Blow about their design philosophies, priorities, and aesthetic sensibilities. Don’t bother with the Sid Meiers or Will Wrights. We’ve heard their ideas. Try a young, emerging designer like Chris Bell. Listen to him describe the game he’s working on (a game called WAY, which I’ve played), and tell me what’s dumb about his project.
So many questions. Why no mention of Minecraft, Portal, SpaceChem, Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery, Bastion, or any strategy game? Why so fixated on narrative? Why no consideration for player-driven or emergent experiences? If “the form remains an artistic backwater,” exactly what form are we talking about? Discussing video games as a monolithic medium oversimplifies the wide (and still growing) variety of genres, play styles, mechanics, and interactive formats video games have adopted.
Maybe Clark is exhausted. I have a feeling this is the real story, and I'm sympathetic. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. We’ve played games from their infancy, and we thought they would matter more by now. We thought we would be long past the “art” question by now. We thought we would see more games for grown-ups by now. I watch the E3 press conferences, I walk into my local GameStop, I hear my students talk about games, and all I see are guns, guns, and more guns. It’s so easy to be disappointed. Clark quotes Chris Hecker’s lament, “It’s just adolescent nonsense.” Often I think he’s right.
But then Clark delivers another zinger, and I hear a gauntlet hit the ground:
It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.
Really? Clark further contends that “gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles” - Flower and Braid - to counter Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that games are unworthy of aesthetic consideration.
Let's Build Something
I think we can do better than that. We can respond constructively. I propose that we collectively build an informal "Smart Game Catalog.” Nothing official. No effort to be comprehensive. Simply an invitation to pitch a game you consider “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” and explain why you think so. If you disagree with Clark's bleak assessment, counter with a helpful response.
Vilifying Clark or defensively rejecting his characterization of games serves no useful purpose. There is more than a kernel of truth in his view of games as "juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy." Too many games are "plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels." Clark's generalizations may undermine his argument, but as I wrote about Jon Blow in my previous post, an artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it. Clark strikes me as a critic motivated to do just that.
Pooling our collective expertise and building an informal catalog of smart games may encourage Clark and others to consider games in a more nuanced way than his Atlantic article models. If nothing else, such a catalog will make a handy resource for players seeking smart games, broadly defined, to play.
Here’s a simple format for the catalog:
Name of game
Developer and Release Year
Platform (PC, Sega Genesis, PS3, Multi, etc.)
A paragraph or two (keep it concise) explaining precisely why you consider the game “artistic or intellectually sophisticated.” Apply rigorous criteria. You have one game to recommend. Choose the best one you know.
If you agree or disagree with someone’s choice of a particular game, say so in the comments here. I’m not interested in flamewars, so be civil and respectful. I’ll moderate your entries to avoid spam, so please be patient if the game you choose doesn’t appear on the list immediately.
Let’s see if we can prove - with specific titles as our evidence - that games can be more than “brain-dead digital toys.”
NOTE: After 365 submissions, I'm no longer accepting entries to the catalog. Thanks for your help!!