Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mirror's Edge

Finished Mirror's Edge tonight.

How was it? It depends. Overall, the game had some frustrating points. The combat can be annoying, there's a reasonable amount of trial and error, and the animated cutscenes look like absolute shit next to the in-game stuff.

On the other hand, when the game works it fucking WORKS. Running across the rooftops, grabbing ledges, sliding under things, kicking off walls and running up stuff, busting through doors, scrambling to get away from the cops...

When you're running, the game is perfect. It's unlike anything else you've ever seen. Reminiscent, at times, of Namco's Breakdown, though Breakdown focused more on the hand-to-hand combat, and totally fell apart at the end. But no game has had such a "complete" first-person experience that really makes you feel connected to the world. The things you do are incredible - leaping from rooftop to rooftop, jumping off a stairwell that cops are rushing up, and bounding from beam to beam, descending the stairwell by basically leaping down the center column and bypassing the cops... it's awesome.

The visual design is stellar - again, totally unique. The story... eh. The story's alright. Predictable, more or less boilerplate stuff - serviceable. Has some nice moments. All in all, though, what can I say? There's stuff in there that will annoy most people. It's not perfect. But it's trying to do something really, really difficult, and something really, really new. In that respect, it's actually a massive success. So it fails in some ways - they've taken HUGE risks. So, if you want something that isn't your run of the mill FPS/third person cover shooter, this is it.

For me, so far, despite its faults, despite the fact that there are tons of other really extraordinary games out there... I think it's my game of the year.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blog Moving

This blog's going to be moving in the relatively near future. will become the home of Helava Systems, my dad's new company, and the game blog will probably move to, or something on blogspot.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Yes It Is.

Read this, which was linked from Kotaku today. The thrust of the article is that a game isn't a series of interesting decisions, and games like Guitar Hero prove that some wave of new games moves away from this definition into something new.


I mean, I don't even know why I should have to explain this, but maybe it's difficult to understand if you're not a working designer. Rock Band/Guitar Hero/Beatmania, etc., all rely on a combination of pattern memorization, quick reflexes, and a good sense of timing - no decisions there - but the good rhythm games, and when you get to harder levels where the "expert play" comes in, you have to be constantly making decisions about fingering, which hand to use at a particular time, and when to use your Star Power/Overdrive to maximize your score or save your friends.

These are all decisions - the fact that you're functionally repeating a linear pattern of notes doesn't make those decisions go away - they're the "stuff" in between the decision points that Soren Johnson was referring to in his quote in the article.

The author of the article states that this may be an appropriate definition for a strategy game, but isn't appropriate for other genres. I disagree. FPS's are almost entirely about ammo management, proper weapon selection, and use of the environment - all those are decision points supplanted by gameplay that requires ridiculous reflexes and hand-eye coordination.

Brain Training is a serioes of short, controlled decision points (what does 2+1 = ?), Guitar Hero is described above, and the Sims *is* a straightforward strategy game, with a suburbanite layer, full stop.

I could see there being an argument that the granularity of the decision points makes them into "gameplay" rather than "decision making," but I think that's improper - the speed and magnitude of the decisions you're making doesn't transform that process into something different.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Battlefield: Bad Company

The latest and greatest version of Battlefield actually has a single player game. It's also on console in its full multiplayer glory, and not an uprezzed port from a last-gen game.

I can't say I liked Battlefield: Modern Combat all that much. I really wanted to like it, because I couldn't run Battlefield 2 on my PC at home - but its awkward mix of arcadey game conceits and realistic military combat never sat right with me.

It's a shame for them that they didn't get the balance right, because a couple years later, Call of Duty did more or less the same point accrual system and worked out the kinks. Bad Company gets it much more like Call of Duty, and as a result is a huge step up from Modern Combat.

The other "hook" that B:BC has going for it is destruction. Almost every wall can be destroyed with enough high-explosive, and the mechanics work like a charm. On top of that, it really *feels* like you're laying waste to huge environments, and has pretty substantial gameplay ramifications. No longer are walls guaranteed cover, no longer are long-distance snipers safe from rocket fire.

The multiplayer is fun, frantic, and evolves substantially over the course of every match due to a progressive map-unlocking structure. As you play, if one team achieves their goal, another portion of the map unlocks, the defenders fall back, and the attackers press their attack. It's great fun, and the constant medal award system keeps you hooked for just one more game.

The single player's a bit strange. While again, it's leaps and bounds above Modern Combat, and mechanically, it's as sound as any other FPS out there, they strike a strange "lighthearted" tone throughout the game. The characters are constantly spouting jokes (to limited success, though some of the background animations are *really* well done), and talking about very cliche things (If Sarge makes it to the end of the game with his constant talk of retirement, I'll be really surprised) - so it's clear that you're supposed to take this all with a wink and a nudge.

The problem is that periodically, something like having an allied helicopter or patrol blown to smithereens right in front of you breaks the lighthearted tone, and reminds you that people (and not just the enemies) are being killed. It's a difficult balance to strike, and while for the most part, the game's story works, it periodically veers into the unintentionally grim.

Overall, between a fun, engaging single-player game and a ridiculously entertaining multiplayer game, Bad Company's definitely worth picking up if you're done with Call of Duty 4... or even if you're not.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Follow up to a Previous Post

In the comments to "When is a Medium Not a Medium," A_B basically makes two points (if I'm summarizing correctly):

  1. The designer can't be an "other" in game theory
  2. There is no distinction between the medium and the method
On the first point, he asks a mathematician about the post, and the response is this:

"However, in particular, he stressed that the "others" are the participants in the system and not the creators of the system. The whole point of game theory is to "consider interests that are not your direct interest. It's not the choices of the designers. It's not a choice if they're not players in the game. It's irrelevant."
While I think that's true in most games, as it is in the example given (pool), I don't think it's the case in all videogames. In pool, the designer created a game where two people compete on a level playing field. That, to me, is like the creators of Quake 3, creating the maps, placing the weapons, etc. They're creating the tools for two people to test themselves against each other.

In a single player game (and this is where I should have been clearer), the designers aren't creating a playing field - they're creating the playing field and they're creating the competitors - everyone in the game who isn't you. While scripting AI or various in-game events, the designers are interested parties - they're betting on your expectations, how you'll respond to various inputs and what you level of skill is. Yeah, it's disconnected, and (for the most part) doesn't happen in real-time, but you do make decisions, as a videogame designer, about what you think the player will do, whether they'll sacrifice health for a better gun, whether they've developed an emotional attachment to an NPC or not.

In some sense, yeah, it's like you're administering the Prisoner's Dilemma, but at the same time, you have a vested interest in the other prisoner. But yes, some games you can definitely make the argument that it is like pool and the designer isn't a participant - I was thinking more of single player games, though that's a little narrow-minded of me.

I'm familiar with the McLuhan quote, though I can't say I've really "internalized" it. I think you can say that videogames, as they've traditionally existed, have been a medium - for sure. I think when you get into the realm of "games," though, you're moving out of the "medium" territory, and even out of the "message" territory. You can have games that are almost entirely devoid of message, except those that are conveyed by their mechanics (though I'd guess McLuhan would tell you that's the message that's inherent in the medium...).

I guess the way I'm thinking about the application of "game" (not "videogame," which I think is harder to categorize as a non-medium) is more like a paintbrush than a brushstroke. It is, essentially, a tool for motivation. A structure that creates both a carrot and a stick, and provides the user with feedback at regular intervals. Whether that manifests itself as something on a screen, or a card, or what have you, it's essentially an engineered experience that encourages a particular behavior.

Is that a medium?

Getting back to an earlier point - I wonder what the distinction is between something like Quake, where the designer is entirely uninterested in the specific outcome of the game, and a single-player game where the designer *is* interested in how the player is doing, how they're making decisions, and are actively trying to guide them through an experience. Obviously, they're both "games" - at least as they're currently labeled.

Saying there's a distinction between "game" and "sport" feels sort of right, but that's using such baggage-laden terms that it's impossible to discuss the distinction without getting really confused.

I think where I'm trying to draw a distinction is maybe not with "game" as something non-medium-y, but rather, the concept of applying a very tight cycle of feedback, consistent behavior, and regular rewards as a motivational tool to encourage specific behavior. That *is* a method, and divested from any particular medium. It's not "videogames," or even "games" as they're traditionally known. It's more the idea of taking the part of videogames that makes the good experiences compelling and using that in other applications.

Gack. My brain hurts. Ei-Nyung and I had this problem trying to talk about this post after the fact - calling something a "game" has a lot of other implications, "game theory" has a specific definition, "medium" and "method" are both terms that people have discussed to death, and wandering through the minefields of potential misinterpretation is pretty bonkers.

But yeah - I guess it's the application of the process that concerns me.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


would post, but my right hand hurts a lot. I think I managed to pinch a nerve playing Rock Band - of all things, drumming to "Go With the Flow."

Will post once the hand is better.

Monday, June 9, 2008

When Is a Medium Not a Medium?

For many years, videogames were dismissed as toys, incapable of artistic expression or meaning. Then, as time passed, the medium matured and began to tell stories that meant something. Sometimes, at least. For years and years, people have argued over and over that games are/are not a legitimate medium unto themselves, independent of the conventions of cinema, books, blah blah blah.

The argument's always been a strange one, because I've always been of the view that what games are capable of is much broader than simply story or no story. Obviously, there's a huge spectrum of possibilities, and they're all legitimate. The only time that they're not legitimate is when they're not games. That is, when they're not interactive.

For a long time, my personal definition of a game went like this: "A game allows the player to make informed choices that affect their ability to make further, better choices." Over the last few years, this definition has served me well. If a game allows you to make multiple choices, that's a good start - but it's the sort of causal cascade that makes a good game really satisfying - not only feeling like you're having some impact on the story but that your impact on the story changes the way you interact with the story on down the line.

Great. And frankly, it works for everything from Halo to Tetris, from Grim Fandango to Madden. It weeds out the things that aren't interactive, where the choices are meaningless, and where there's only one binary choice of any consequence (strangely, this pops up every now and again).

Today, I saw an interesting snippet from Will Wright on Kotaku - he said,

We have yet to prove we can do meaningful things with this form of expression, but I believe we are at the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of possibilities [referencing the geological era in which complex life flourished]. We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Here's what I wrote in response when I shared the item in Google Reader:

“This is sort of an interesting issue that's shaping up a little as games continue to evolve. More than "winning" legitimacy as a form of expression, I see games simply becoming part of *everything*.

"Games" will simply be the delineation between passive and active media. TV will include games or game-like qualities in shows where it's appropriate - hell, you already have large-scale participatory shows (American Idol, et. al.). Sure, right now, they're the functional equivalent of "Hello, World," but the fact that participatory, active media is now not an aberration but something that's expected and well-understood, expansion of the concept is sure to follow.

Similarly, interactive art installations, remixable music, blah blah blah - they've been around for years, but videogames have shown how these things will develop in the future.

Think of it - for years, MIT's Media Lab wanted to do something that made music interactive - the Brain Opera was a step in that direction. But it wasn't until the mechanics of that interaction worked like a game that it exploded into mainstream entertainment. (Yes, I'm aware of the direct link between the Brain Opera and Harmonix.)

Point being - it's not that movies, comic books and games are fighting for legitimacy. "Games" aren't a medium - they're a method.

It's the method that's proven to have results - genuine, inarguable, positive results. The medium is still a pseudo-cinematic mishmash that only a few companies (Valve) have managed to crack. But the mechanics are everywhere, and they're getting only more pervasive as time goes on.

The battle Wright alludes to is already over.”

This kept rolling around in my brain. While I wrote it somewhat on the spur of the moment, without thinking about it a whole lot, the notion that "games aren't a medium, they're a method," really stuck with me.

It reminded me a lot of Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken" rant from the 2008 GDC. Her central tenet was that the real world can benefit from the application of game design. It's something I wholeheartedly agree with, but it's not making reality a game medium, it's simply an application of a method to a thing.

Then, there was this article, on Wii Fit being expensed as a fitness item. Of course it can be - it's barely a game - it's a fitness tool that uses game mechanics to motivate the user to keep using the game. The reward structure is pure game, but the product itself is not first and foremost a game. It's a game as we currently define it, but let's just call it what it is. It's a fitness tool whose reward structure is derived from games.

So, I'm sitting here, now in retrospect thinking, "Duh. This is such an obvious conclusion that I'm going to look online, and hundreds of people are going to have well-written, thorough discussions about games not as a medium, but as a method." And I'm sure they're out there. But unfortunately search terms being what they are, it's difficult to find out for sure, since people may be using slightly different wording.

But to me, this is the end of the debate about whether games are art, or whether they're a valid medium. Of course they can be art, just as they can also not be art. But the question isn't whether games are a valid medium or not: it's whether they're a medium at all.