May 18, 2013
My Thoughts on BioShock Infinite
For reasons having to do with my antiquated blogging software¹, I've put up my thoughts about BioShock Infinite in a separate page. I welcome comments, which you can attach to this post... sorry for the clunky nature of that, but I have other things I need to do today.
¹Hey, it's been working for over 9 years, which is more than I can say for much of the software I use. :)
May 14, 2013
Why Iron Man 3 Didn't Work for Me, and Why I Care
This post of necessity includes massive spoilers about Iron Man 3, so if you've not seen it yet and would prefer not to be spoiled, move along.
Yesterday I tweeted about how over time I've gotten more and more annoyed as I've thought on Iron Man 3¹:
The more I think about Iron Man 3, the angrier I get at the cynicism and lack of craft that produces a film so barren of ideas and humanity.— brett_douville (@brett_douville) May 13, 2013
A Few of Iron Man 3's Sins
What bothers me most of all about this movie is how unformed its ideas are. Every thought in this picture is undeveloped, serving only as the barest justification for more explosions and explosions and toy marketing.
Let's start with Stark's PTSD. Here's an interesting element, worthy of exploration: the ability or inability of a man's mind to cope with a universe enlarged by his own powers. In Iron Man's case, this is a wide, fantastical universe which contains gods and aliens, as he points out. This should neatly parallel the potential story of the PTSD of these soldiers returning home; after all, even ordinary soldiers can have difficulty managing the stress of having been granted new powers, through rigorous physical and military training, which opens up the universe of combat operations. There are interesting questions to at least speculate about here -- if Stark and some others can overcome these issues but others can't, why? Instead, the PTSD of Stark is used merely as a bit of early exposition to introduce his insomnia, for the big payoff of him having had time to build countless extra suits for the later brawl-for-it-all².
And let's talk for a moment about the super-soldiers who have come home with a dangerous case of overheating; here is a clear analogy to PTSD, but screenwriter/director Shane Black can't decide where he comes down on this question. A scene at Mann's Chinese Theater makes a clear suggestion that lack of willpower leads to these dangerous, exploding men³, showing a veteran with the shakes, sweaty and grasping like an addict. Yet later, Stark tells the grieving mother of an off-the-radar exploding Tennessee man that her son wasn't responsible and suggests that he's after the ones who were4. I'm not sure an intelligent filmgoer can let him have it both ways.
Oh, and hey, how about our main villain? He talks of being motivated by desperation, and after throwing Pepper Potts to her apparent death tells Stark he's trying to do the same thing for him. I'm not sure about Tony, but if my girlfriend were thrown to her death, "desperation" wouldn't be the first emotional response I'd have -- unless I were desperate for revenge, I'd think my first tentative emotional steps would be towards the stages of grief. I guess it's perhaps that Stark is in denial about her death that he just turns back with more one-liners about how she was already perfect; or perhaps, like the audience, he's already seen forward to the part where she regenerates these injuries because she's the latest lab rat for Pearce. Our villain also seems to think that the only possible market for his regenerating technology would be the super-soldiers he can make that spit fire... has he seriously not been paying attention to the $84 billion that pharmaceutical companies took home last year in the pursuit of health and well-being and the bottom line? Surely a transformative technology such as this has more than military application5.
I could go on, but I won't. It's really just too easy.
The film has its bright spots -- there's a bit of banter here and there between Paltrow and Downey Jr that's pretty decent, though nowhere near the level of the screwball comedies I've heard it compared to6. Her late destruction of an Iron Man suit by driving a fist through its chest is a welcome moment, too; it puts the exclamation point on her frustrations with seeing him so totally absorbed by his heroic role to the detriment of their relationship. The interaction between Stark and a young boy who gives him a bit of help isn't dreadful, though it mostly relies on Iron Man turning into Tony Snark7. Rebecca Hall, as an underling of the villain who slept with Tony in his earlier days turns in a good performance and has a nice deception going when she kidnaps Pepper Potts as the assault that destroys his house goes on; even that doesn't make a ton of sense to me, because she's clearly in mortal danger during this attack as much as the other two, but I'm reaching here for the good stuff.
Finally, there's a bit of tweaking the audience about how gullible we might be to mass media if properly produced, using Ben Kingsley as a stand-in for the Mandarin in one of the film's truly bright spots altogether, both in his acting and in the ideas it develops. There are clear analogies here to bin Laden in the faux-Mandarin's appearance and demands, while William Sadler looks and talks much like our own 43rd President. It almost entirely lampoons the excess of patriotic symbols in our response to terrible injuries to our country, but even here I wonder whether there's gravity or merely self-serving parody, given the rest of the film's sins.
You might ask me why I care
Part of why I care whether these films are any good is just plain selfish. I have two sons, a tween and a teen, so I'll be seeing movies like this for the foreseeable future -- I want to share with them my own love of film, and the summer blockbuster is a place where we can hopefully meet. But it's harder and harder every year, and so I turn to old greats of every genre via streaming and DVD; they've seen stuff going all the way back to Buster Keaton. But I still want to enjoy the communal, shared experience of going somewhere other than the living room to see a movie, as I did with my own father and family, and so we go. I also want these films to be better because I want them to be able to interested in carrying on this love to their own kids some day, should they have them.
But setting that aside, a co-worker of mine asked my today why I can't just turn off my brain when I sit down to watch these things. And I have two answers to that.
The first is that I expect more from mass media as a creator of mass media -- I work at a studio that tries to deliver a bigger-than-life experience that nonetheless attempts to connect with people on a personal level. And so I try and find a way in that works at a level beyond that of stringing together enough false gravitas to get the audience to the next big explosion or set piece. As the products get more expensive to build, we'll need to find a way to reach even bigger audiences, and I think that's going to have to mean that our art carries real heart.
But the second is that I've seen it done so well so often in the blockbusters I've loved. A great and memorable blockbuster not only offers us spectacle; it delivers material that can make us reflect on another level above the immediacy of spectacle on our own fragile human condition. Forty years after Jaws, we should have learned that the film continues to reach viewers not because of its great effects, and not because it's about a scary shark -- the film works because it's about a man who fears for his family and community, and his own apparent powerlessness to protect them. It also suggests a potential response, as that man bands with others who have specialized skills to help him do so.
We can look to others, too, and I'll offer two more, even though I could list dozens of blockbusters that have spoken to me. Whenever I ask whether a superhero film can ask deep questions, I think of The Incredibles, which remains my favorite superhero film; it points out that spending time in resentment for a lost past one can miss out on the real joys of the present8, and I wonder about my own ability to let go of the disappointments in my own past. When I think about even this writer/director, I think of Lethal Weapon, which offered not just a buddy movie, but a story of a man so overcome by grief that he abuses his position as a police officer to seek a means of legal suicide in the line of duty.
Although my immediate reaction to Iron Man 3 was negative, it wasn't helped by watching another film over the weekend. I won't dwell on it to much detail, but I watched a small Korean film about a hitman who has to arrange his deaths to look like accidents called Accident. In this film, which likely had less than a twentieth of IM3's budget, the filmmakers nonetheless use the set pieces as a way to advance the story of the planner of these killings, which astound in their elaborateness. Although far from a great or perfect film, it'll probably stay with me longer, because it poses questions about what sort of psychology a person would have to have to maintain the attention to detail these killings required, and how that same psychology might lead that person astray when a detail couldn't be accounted for. It's almost an update to Coppola's great The Conversation, and I know how the Hollywood version turns out, where it's Final Destination and it focuses almost exclusively on the set pieces and not at all on the human beings who bring them about.
In the end, the only metaphors Iron Man 3 could offer me were these: a suit of armor, flying about and rescuing people, with none the wiser that it was entirely empty; and of a hero with the energy at last completely removed from the center of his chest... where his heart should be.
I've been too busy to blog lately, but come back soon for posts about BioShock: Infinite, Tomb Raider, Papo y Yo, as well as more from my back catalog. Cheers.
¹My favorite response was from Mike Jungbluth, who noted:
@brett_douville That is its true power. It is a slow burning piece of coal for the hate furnace of anyone with self respect.— Michael Jungbluth (@lightbombmike) May 13, 2013
²The Filmspotting podcast neatly observed that the introduction of the variety of suits there seemed entirely there to justify the various toys which could thereby be sold, and remarked that they felt like they should be seeing them for sale in the lobby. It's hard to argue that. It recalled a conversation I overheard between two LucasArts colleagues years ago, when one complained that when he came out of Tarzan, there were plush toys and action figures being sold in the lobby. The other replied that this was to be expected from Disney, which was a marketing company, and that you couldn't be mad about it. The first retorted that he wanted to see a movie, not to participate in some sort of pitch for consumer goods. I found the latter the more sympathetic position.
³An idea followed up later in a video of the experiment which says that "failure to regulate" will bring dangerous consequences.
4 No doubt it's putting too much thought into this thing that Stark is able to get to this woman before the evil organization can, in another weak plot move that made little sense to me except to justify a mid-movie battle between super-soldiers and a suit-less Iron Man. I respect the idea that Tony Stark doesn't need the suit to come out on top... but it doesn't make sense to me that a villain who can dispatch helicopters to destroy a house somewhere on the coast of California without alerting any sort of Homeland Security response and put a phone number on the President's cell phone can't identify and quiet an experiment they'd rather people not know about.
5 For purposes of comparison, I've seen Halliburton having been reported to have earned $40 billion for the entirety of the war with Iraq. Pharma seems like a bigger bet, there, Mister Ineeda Market.
6 My favorite ever in this regard is probably His Girl Friday, but there are too many to count that rise well above the chemistry and wit demonstrated by these two.
7 Okay, I couldn't help myself.
8 Amongst other themes... but this is the one that spoke to me most at the time, as I dealt with my own issues with the past.
April 06, 2013
Should I Have Finished... Kingdom Hearts?
I remember being quite excited in 2002 for the arrival of Kingdom Hearts, a partnership between Square and Disney that promised a JRPG which took me to my favorite childhood Disney locales and allowed me to interact with lots of wonderful characters from those classic films. While that's true of the final product, I think there's a fundamental flaw underpinning this game that arises from the choices Square made in melding JRPG and Disney magic.
The story concerns a young boy named Sora, who lives a simple island life with his friends; this life is ultimately threatened by the "Big Bad," which is the gradual destruction of the universe by a spreading darkness. We understand that to be the product of some sort of alliance between Disney villains and a new force not from the films. Before long, in a sort of hub level, Sora meets up with Donald and Goofy, who are on a quest of their own to track down King Mickey, who has gone missing. Having similar goals, and recognizing Sora as the Keyblade Master (don't ask), the three team together and begin visiting various worlds in the Disney universe, such as Wonderland or the inside of the whale Monstro. These locations are gorgeously realized and often incorporate movement and other elements that reflect the setting, such as swimming when "Under the Sea" with Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or sliding down broad vines and swinging in Tarzan's jungle.
KH here promises to do something so very right, to allow you to incorporate special heroic characters from each setting into your party. It's sadly also where it decides to do something so very wrong, by forcing you to choose to swap out either Donald or Goofy, and not Sora, this new character from Square's imagination. I have no real relationship to Sora, and I don't really care to build one when Jack the Pumpkin King or even Simba the Lion are on offer. While he's sympathetic, he lacks the depth and the history I have with these other characters.
Furthermore, I know I'm playing a Square RPG and therefore I know that at the end of the game I'll be using Sora, Donald, and Goofy to fight the big bad enemy... and any experience points gained along the way that go into these other ancillary characters will not only be wasted effort but possibly disastrous to my ability to finish the game, or require soul-crushing hours of grind. Time Donald or Goofy spend outside the party is wasted effort, as the discarded character will gain no experience and thus be unable to help when the final battles approach. So the choice to use these characters isn't one that appeals to me as a gamer, and the character I care least about controlling is the one I'm stuck with throughout the game. It's a failure both of wish-fulfillment and fan service.
The worst part is, it was entirely fixable; there are better choices to be made here. As characters advance in levels, they gain special abilities of various kinds that can be selected as being currently in use², and this is what is potentially lost when Donald or Goofy leave the party. The fixes are straightforward: allow the player to control any character he wants, and make up his party of three however he wants (from a selection of Sora, Donald, Goofy, and the special character for the current world), and simply level the party as a unit, rather than each character individually. This would allow the player to have the Disney experience he'd most like, and yet avoid the consequences from difficulty choices on the part of design team at Square³.
I think this game came out at a point in time where difficulty was very much finding its way as games found a larger, more mainstream audience. And the approach Square took certainly doesn't appear to have hurt sales -- a cursory Internet search turns up that this series has sold more than 17 million copies to date, and recently I've heard that an HD remake may be coming. But I have to wonder how many of those copies have sat unfinished on shelves like mine, their beautiful worlds unexplored owing to lack of wish fulfillment. When you wish upon a star, indeed.
I may have more to say about Kingdom Hearts in another post, we'll see. There are some things I quite liked about the game, but this central tension between what I most wanted from the game and the terrible price I'd pay if I chose it was foremost in my mind throughout the experience.
¹The later films were not part of my childhood, but certainly may have been for some of the target audiences.
²As both a balancing and character customization mechanism, each character has a certain amount of points to spend enabling or disabling these abilities, which have different costs.
³It's fair to say these are extreme. The final boss of the game absolutely trounced me on my first attempt, and I went and ground out a whole bunch of levels to compensate. I think it consisted of something like 8 stages. It was... another poor choice if you're attempting to have crossover appeal.
April 01, 2013
Corrosive Anonymity and That Thing That Happened
Here's something that happened to me a long time ago. It was a little scary while it was going on, but in the long term it hardly affected me at all; I say this up front because I want to be clear that I know that the sort of fear I experienced then pales in comparison with what goes on today. Until recently I hadn't thought of the events I describe at all in quite some time.
It was 1990 and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania; I had chosen to live a second year in the Quadrangle, which is primarily a first-year dormitory. My room was on the top floor, and happened to be in a section of hallway that for reasons of modernization had been cut off a little bit -- there were only two rooms in the hallway. The other was occupied by a first-year woman, whom I met in the first week but with whom I had little interaction. For the sake of the story, we'll call her Marilyn¹.
A few months into the semester someone started leaving strange messages on my answering machine; first just a bunch of hanging up, which wasn't terribly unusual but then, it didn't seem to connect with any of my friends saying, "Oh hey, called you earlier, do you want to..." etc. Occasionally sort of a whispery noise, like a bad connection.
Before long, I started getting real messages, and they were a bit scary. Demonically raspy voices², saying the most vile of things, some sexual, some simply... bizarre. I had no idea where these were coming from. They varied in length, but the subject matter was always pretty disturbing. The first time, I can remember being puzzled, assumed it was a wrong number, a prank gone awry, and erased the message. But they kept coming and I started wondering what I had done to bring this on myself.
The messages got more particular; they identified me by name and by appearance, and then started involving physical descriptions of my girlfriend, always in this weird raspy voice that I can still only describe as demonic. This was where I really started to worry a bit, because it was clear my comings and goings and companionship were being noted. It seemed was being watched. I was pretty terrified, because I didn't know how to make it stop.
I started losing sleep; never a strong sleeper, I now found it even harder to fall asleep at night, and the whoops and hollers that are normal in the shared spaces of a dorm were wake me with a sense of anxiety until the wee hours. I'd lie there with my heart pounding, terrified in that way you can only be when you're awoken suddenly. My concentration and focus during the day suffered, too, and between courses, holding a job, and studying, I was exhausted a lot of the time.
I went first to my RA and then to the cops, bringing the tape along and they said they could put a trace on my phone, but I'd need to keep a log of when the calls were coming in. I put a notebook by the phone and waited for the next one.
One day I had just entered the hallway to my room when I heard the voice, and I ran straight for my door... and I realized I was hearing it not through my own door, but through the door across the hall. My phone stalker, for lack of a better word, was my hall neighbor Marilyn, a person with whom I had had almost no contact³ and about whom I knew almost nothing.
I went straight up to her door and banged on it, and when she opened it, I let her have it. I started with "This stops right now; I know that it's you, and I've already alerted the police to this situation." She tried to distract me, tried to dissuade me from what I knew, and had she been a guy I probably would have decked her. I went to my own room.
The phone messages stopped. I never spoke with her again. I called the cops and let them know that it had been addressed. I told my RA, who I admit wasn't terribly effective -- probably he should have gotten her moved to another dorm. I didn't ask him to, and he didn't push. I didn't want to rock the boat. Strangely, I didn't want to mess with someone else's life, even if that someone had messed with mine.
I spent several weeks still worried, with the paranoid thoughts that come in such situations, that she might be unhinged, that she might be standing outside my door some morning with a chef's knife. I looked through the keyhole every time I left my room for the rest of the year, and through the glass in the fire door when I entered the hall from the outside. I looked for opportunities to sleep elsewhere, such as at my girlfriend's, who was in her senior year and very busy with a heavy class load. It hurt my sophomore year experience, but I got past it. I even became an RA the next two years, but that's another set of stories altogether.
I'm telling this here and now because I see so much of this anonymous terrorizing in our culture right now -- the easy anonymity of the Internet and these social networks we have empower it. Friends of mine have experienced it, mostly through Twitter and email and comments on their articles, should they be bloggers and writers. It's worse now than anything I ever experienced, but I know something of the toll it takes.
The worst time for me wasn't when I knew that it was my neighbor -- the worst time was when I didn't know who it was at all. To feel that paranoia that it could be anyone at all, and that's magnified a thousand-fold by our current tools. Once I knew who it was I was in control again, I was able to sleep, the fear was gone and I could take steps to protect myself in case she was truly unhinged. Before that, it could have been anyone. Someone who at least some of the time tracked my comings and goings, someone who knew what I looked like, what my girlfriend looked like. All of these things are easy to find out in our hyper-connected online culture, and it makes this sort of behavior even easier. To a degree, this experience years ago is the reason why I present myself online only as myself -- my email addresses and handles are all some mix of my first and last name.
If you're one of those crushingly bilious people out there who hide behind anonymity to instill this sort of terror in people, I pity you. I pity what's missing in you that you think for even a moment that this sort of thing is okay. I pity that you allow these darker parts of your nature to come out, and that you don't stop yourself, that you lack the basic decency to stop yourself before you do this to someone.
There's worse out there than my experience with "Marilyn", I know. There are more horrible things in life, and I don't for a moment compare my experience with what women are experiencing every day. I also doubt talking about my own little experience would necessarily stop someone from pursuing such vile streams of hate as I see out there on the Internet every day. But I have to say something just in case it might give pause to somebody, somewhere, before another human being has to endure this sort of thing.
I just wish all that shit would stop. Please make it stop. If you have a friend who you know does this sort of thing, please ask them to stop. Our culture needs to move on from this.
¹Her name wasn't Marilyn, though it started with an M; that comes from the poster of Marilyn Monroe she had on her wall. I remember making conversation about it, when I introduced myself at her door, something along the lines of "nice poster" and her replying, "Oh, I know, I sometimes think that if I were as pretty as Marilyn my life would be perfect."
²Think Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
³I was a sophomore, had friends, girlfriend, etc, and didn't know her at all.
March 31, 2013
It's hard to write a simple recap of 2013's GDC, which ended Friday in San Francisco. For me, the last five days were a swirl of thought, reflection, and personal connection. I love this week of the year so damned much!
Session highlightsIn years past I've described great stuff I saw, writing notes about every session. I'm going to call out just a few this time out, but over the next few months I'm going to be trying to watch so many that I missed on the GDC Vault, so those may come back up in this space or elsewhere. Here are a few; if I had to pick a session of the show for me, it would probably come from these three.
- Nathan Martz on Ideas Per Second: How Double Fine Optimizes for Human Performance. Nathan's talk focused primarily on how to build and maintain an engineering team that allows the whole team to generate as many ideas as possible. Double Fine's focus is on generating new IP and game mechanics, and as technical director, Nathan is responsible for making strategic choices that allow this to happen as quickly as possible. He specifically cited the value of engineering culture and how important every hire is, as well as some specific tactical advice at the code level. It was a terrific talk, well worth checking out on the Vault.
- The #1ReasonToBe Panel. This event got a fair amount of press coverage (example here) -- it was a powerful set of short talks about something that we shouldn't even need to talk about in 2013. Yet here we are. Personal favorites were Robin Hunicke discussing specifics over simple slides and Brenda Romero's fantastic evocation of the sexualization of E3, this time using scantily clad men as examples.
- Nels Anderson on Of Choice and Breaking New Ground: Designing Mark of the Ninja. Nels did a fantastic job of breaking down how one might innovate in a particular genre, avoiding the dangers of becoming too broad (and thereby losing the specifics of what made a genre work) and also of driving too niche (and thereby shrinking the market via grognard capture). He laid out the driving principles of what he felt were critical elements to the stealth genre and talked about how specific choices led to particular feel of play. For example, the bow in Thief requires a fair amount of player skill, and has limited resources, so it tends to work to slow the game down -- it's a choice that's not made the only way you can make it in a stealth game. Terrific stuff here and one I'll watch again.
- Seeing everyone. I felt like I saw so many people this year, even more than in previous years, and that was amazing. I can't even begin to list all the people I got to spend at least a few minutes with. You are all wonderful people.
- IGDA Scholar/Mentor program. I was a mentor to a really nice young person from Orange County, Justin Lara. It was the first time I participated in this program, and despite my concerns with the IGDA this year in particular, I'm glad to have met Justin.
- The Brainy Gamer dinner. I see so many wonderful people at this every year; many of the people I have so much respect for are present, and it has been a terrific way to get in touch with people I don't work with but would like to work with.
- Giants vs As at AT&T Park. I went with Michael Abbott and Sarah Elmaleh to a ballgame. I might have to make this an annual event. A great way to cap the week.
That's my quick wrap-up, time to power this thing off and descend into Baltimore. I'll post it up on my site tomorrow.
March 16, 2013
by Deborah Levy
Deborah Levy's short novel Swimming Home is a fairly gripping read; I finished it over the course of a single day back in January. It's a deep dive into a certain kind of madness; it neither lets go of you at any given point nor does it end up where you expect.
Two couples go on vacation. The first of these pairs a male poet with a female war reporter, along with their daughter, who has been mostly raised by the father owing to the mother's occupation. The other is a pair of shop-owners, who are hiding some financial distress; the two women are friends.
Into this already somewhat strange mix is thrown a young woman who appears to be at least slightly crazy and who turns out to have an obsession with the poet; her biggest goal is to get him to read a poem she has written for him.
It's a very impressionistic experience, elliptical and uncertain, and the vague sense of menace on every page kept me completely absorbed. If I had to say it reminded me of anything specifically, it would be my favorite films by David Lynch, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. It carries with it that same sense of strangeness undergirding normal lives, how things are more rotten than they appear, and best yet, I had no idea where it would end up. In a longer novel, sustaining this would have not worked for me at all, but at under 200 pages, this works spectacularly in Swimming Home.
¹I'm reminded of Nicola Barker's Behindlings, which I started but couldn't finish because the strangeness allowed the propulsion of the novel to completely stall.
March 12, 2013
The Worst Thing
I just wanted to take a moment to address the worst thing that could possibly result from those Feminist Frequency videos:
Yes, that. Nothing.
Let me say that again. The worst thing that could possibly happen... is that nothing happens.
Like it or not, games are an art form, and the worst possible step forward for an art form is no step at all, no self-reflection, simple stagnation. An art form dies when it ceases to examine itself, to find things it's not saying or not able to say and ask why it isn't and how it might. If game developers aren't interested in examining what we do, and if our audience is actively uninterested in us doing so, well, we might as well pack up and go home. The unexamined game isn't worth playing; the unexamined game industry simply won't last.
You've seen this in action, no doubt. Failing to examine what a game or genre is capable of causes sequels to fail to interest you on their next go-round. You lose interest when it feels like developers are phoning it in¹, or when a new game in a genre simply repeats what you've seen before in other games. These "new" games don't capture the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling that a great game does, and the reason is that they simply copy what has gone before.
Much of the explosive growth of the games industry in the past half-dozen years or so has come from exactly this sort of reflection, where individuals are looking around at the games available and asking "Where's this game that I'd like to play? Where is the game for me?" or "What can I do that no one else has done?" The degree to which individual efforts are successful or not isn't terribly relevant; what matters is that people are out there exploring this immense space of what games can mean, what they can express, and what they can do better.
Self-analysis at a creative level is what stimulates growth in this art form just as any other. The lack of it just means getting the same thing year in and year out; it means that it dies altogether. Nearly everything you've loved about new games has likely come from someone asking a question, about taking a moment to examine what is and what could be.
Take that away and, well, you'll be left with nothing before long. I love games and want them to continue to grow, evolve, and challenge. Examination of the choices they make again and again is healthy and welcome.
So I say to Anita Sarkeesian and anyone else who wants to look at what we're doing: keep it coming.
I'll be back to examine some more games here in this space probably over the weekend.
¹This is also, I submit, what is fundamentally wrong with the crassest forms of gamification²; there's no examination of how game mechanics might actively support a particular goal, merely the addition of points, badges, ladders, leaderboards, and other "game-like" features to tasks that don't fundamentally work together.
²One could reasonably argue that it's also the reason behind Zynga's current woes, though I'm far from expert in those titles.
March 03, 2013
Replaying my own games, part 2
A few months ago I posted about Star Wars: Starfighter, my first title, and now I've gotten to the point in playing old games I hadn't finished where I've run up against my second game, which came out a year later, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter.
By and large we made some significant improvements over the first. The introduction of large capital ships and Force Powers to the basic formula of Starfighter are welcome ones, and make it feel more Star-Warsy than the original. The storytelling is better, too, with ties to the film largely cut away¹ and some clear continuity in the missions, particularly Nym's story arc, which ties together several missions in the construction of a moon-based cannon to provide cover as they retake the base they lost in the first game.
It had some similar issues with difficulty as the first, just a substantially strange curve, though in this case it tended to err on the side of being too easy at points, particularly at the end where, owing to the ability to slow down time using the Force, you can pretty much knock off the final boss in a matter of a few seconds².
My job on this one was different from the original, my first time out as a lead programmer, and so I think of it differently. I was an active lead, as the only programmer from the first game to return, and took on different responsibilities³. As a sequel done in roughly a year of development, we started from the original game's code and focused on higher performance and adding features such as the Force powers, additional weapons, and co-operative play throughout the main missions. Several of the designers from the first game returned, and their knowledge about the tools and performance characteristics of the engine made for a very stable development cycle; as I recall, this game went through six months of QA with fewer than 400 bugs4.
The one fixed constant through development was the schedule; due to whatever reasons, this product had to ship in the fiscal year, which ended at the end of March. So we adopted a strategy whereby we reviewed paper mission designs early. The format of the meetings was simple; there'd be 10 minutes of the level designer describing the mission and answering brief questions, 5 minutes each from art and tech describing risks they saw with the design, and finally 10 minutes revising the mission or coming up with approaches that would help ameliorate the risk.
For example, the sixth mission of the game as described was originally meant to take place around a truly immense mountain, so high that you couldn't see the ground, and really a cloud cover would provide the visual reference of the direction of gravity. There were obvious difficulties with this and as a production team we allotted a small amount of time to prove out the risk artistically; in the end, it was scaled back to the large but not truly immense landmark that actually shipped. Similarly, a mission that was to take place on a small moon would require gravity that attracted bombs to a point, rather than along an axis, and the recommendation to the designer in that case was to build it in such a way as to have most of the mission take place on the side of the moon which would already align with the way things worked in our ground missions (and in this case, tech was able to give the designer what he was looking for, but the risk was largely avoided by design). Every mission was reviewed in this way.
Certain aspects certainly could be improved:
- To provide replayability, every mission has bonus and hidden objectives, with the thought that multiple plays would unlock rewards and such, and this lack of information can be frustrating, so it may have been a good idea to unhide them once you finished the game.
- There's no notification when you receive a new weapon or Force Power, so players may not even realize they have them5.
- We should have better instructed the player about various elements of the controls, particularly with regard to controlling wingmen, ground units, and in the final mission, the giant space cannon.
Surely there are other issues, but on this revisiting, those are the things that stood out.
It was fun to take the old Jedi Starfighter out for a spin again and remember that frenzied production, which included a dramatic rewrite of the plot after the events of September 11th the year before it came out. I really enjoyed working on those games, and I'll always remember them fondly. Between the two I had so many firsts, including the first time I ever got to be on a production set for a commercial, about a poor Jedi who loses his keys.
¹With the exception of the Jedi Starfighter itself, and a few lines here and there about events on Geonosis while you tackle a mission there... On the other hand, I may just be missing the references, since I skipped the second and third prequel films on the strength of the first.
²It's quite amusing, too, since he ends up playing all of his lines one right after the other, the "I'm at 75% health" line, and the "I'm at 50%" line, all of which are basically along the lines of how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his, yadda yadda yadda, ended with a dying yell.
³This was, for example, my first time professionally programming at the system level, as I made substantial changes to the resource system.
4Here again we had the benefit of a well-built code base and development strategy; the original Starfighter went through a bit longer QA cycle with just around 1000 bugs.
5Indeed, I was nearly at Nym's final mission when I remembered some of the advanced secondary weaponry he had, and I built the damned thing. =) After every project I did with lead designer Tim Longo, I'd ask him what he thought we most missed, and in the case of JSF, it was the planned but cut for time feature of announcing new weaponry at the end of each mission. I can't disagree, in this case.
February 24, 2013
I Should Have Finished... Maximo: Ghosts to Glory
One of the most difficult games of the PS2 generation was reputedly Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, a Capcom platformer derived from the old arcade classic Ghouls 'n' Goblins. It very much has the feel of the old title both in terms of narrative and some base mechanics.
Maximo uses a fairly classic narrative set-up; the Princess is held in a castle by an evil wizard who has built armies from the undead. In the opening cutscene, he kills Maximo, who then faces the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper offers him a bargain: he'll return Maximo to life if he'll fight the wizard. In raising the dead back to life, the wizard's dark magics have deprived the Grim Reaper of a job, you see. And so Maximo goes off to gather the three or four whizbangs from the spirits of who'sis -- standard stuff to set up the context of why we're visiting these disparate worlds.
Maximo's health is represented by how much armor he wears; each time he is hit by an enemy he'll lose one level of his armor (first helmet, then chest-piece, and finally pants, leaving him in his heart-covered boxers), in a nod to the old games. If he is hit while in his underwear, Maximo will "die," losing a life and returning to either the most recently reached checkpoint or the beginning of the current level. Should Maximo be deprived of all lives, the Grim Reaper will return him to battle with five new lives for a price; I'll return to discuss the weird mercenary/economic level of this game later in this post. However, this "one shot - one level of health" mechanic is at the core of the micro-difficulty of the game. Moment-to-moment success depends on learning the rhythm of attacks of enemies, quickly identifying the type of enemy you're facing, and remaining patient, dodging attacks or catching them on your shield until you can deliver a killing blow.
The level structure consists of introductory levels which lead to level hubs. Each hub branches to several levels which can be played in any order; a boss level will open once all of the levels have been beaten, via reaching their exits and returning to the hub world. Defeating the boss is usually a tricky, unorthodox bit of combat; defeating it leads to the introductory level for the next hub.
And that's our macro-level of difficulty which can make this game so frustrating -- having defeated the hub's levels, we are treated to a boss battle, usually resulting in much trial and error leading to the loss of many lives. From there, we continue on; we are given the option to save our game here, but only by trading off against other choices which often seem more valuable (such as being given a full set of armor). Our next stop is the beginning of a new hub world, that introductory level -- where we'll encounter new enemies and attacks, again sapping Maximo of many lives, and possibly killing him altogether. This changing set of challenges establishes a rhythm of difficulty; even though these introductory levels are relatively less challenging than the levels which will lead from the hub world, they nonetheless surprise and those surprises generally lead to death.
This brings me to the strange underpinning of many of these mechanics; the economics of the play, which are unlike anything I've ever seen. Throughout play, Maximo picks up "Koins" much as in other platformers. However, unlike in other platformers such as Mario and Sonic, gaining these does not simply lead to additional lives -- it allows Maximo to purchase armor from spots placed in various levels and to also purchase individual transport between hubs or indeed even to be able to save one's game. Maximo: Ghosts to Glory may be the only game I've ever played where saving progress has to be earned; you don't have enough "Koins" at the start of the game to do so¹. Games can only be saved in the hub worlds at special locations, where one can also purchase transport to another hub.
What's stranger still, given the narrative underpinning, is that the additional lives that can be granted by the Grim Reaper are also only available via purchase, in this case via a special "Death Koin" that will pay off Death (and indeed, these may become available as you gain multiples of 100 normal "Koins"; I've forgotten). Having died once, it will cost a single Death Koin to placate him and return you to the land of the living; dying a second time costs you two Death Koins, and a third, four Death Koins, et cetera. That progression is strange given the context that you're supposed to be helping out the Reaper.
I'm not entirely sure what the point of all this mercantilism is in the game; is it a commentary on capitalism in some way? It's not well-enough thought through, if so, but it does add a sort of comedy to the proceedings, as if the designers actively would prefer you not succeed, or if they are at the very least setting up significant bars against your success. "These are the odds, this is not for the timid. Take it or leave it." It reminds me of the current fervor for those very difficult Souls games.
So what's a player to do? Well, this structure encourages two strategies of play: 1) getting really quite good at the moment-to-moment combat of the game by learning the timing of various attacks, and 2) replaying early levels to find hidden bonuses which grant extra lives, in a sort of grinding way. I found myself often employing the latter, particularly as I reached the extremely difficult later levels.
Despite this, I found the game both remarkably charming and immensely fun, in a sort of flow-state engaging way. Even having played through early levels many multiple times, the challenge never became completely rote, and intense concentration was required. My ability certainly grew over time, and while I could pass through the first levels without ever being hit, doing so was never a simple or mindless proposition. Players who enjoy difficult games such as the Souls games could do well to check out this one; indeed, I immediately thought about buying its sequel, Maximo and the Army of Zin, but that would go against the spirit of this project. Still, a great game that I'm glad I picked up at some point over the years.
¹One could argue that the same is true of the typewriter ribbons in a game like Resident Evil, but I'd contend that since you get your first 'save resource' at the same time you reach your first checkpoint that this is significantly different.
February 18, 2013
How Music Works
by David Byrne
About a month ago, I finished David Byrne's terrific book about the art, craft, and business of music-making, How Music Works. I'm always particularly interested in how other creators work, especially in fields that have been around a bit longer, and this was a terrific read, particularly the early chapters where he discussed his process with the Talking Heads and in other projects¹.
Byrne begins from a different point than one might expect; he essentially starts with the idea that the act of creation fits a pre-existing context, rather than as some spark of inspiration. He takes us through a musical history beginning with pre-classical music, through Western classical music and then into the twentieth century, focusing on various forms of popular music, and at each step of the way he indicates the music making context -- how and where the music was performed, and therefore what forces worked to make the music what it was. It's a fantastic and studied analysis, and I encourage anyone who thinks about their own creative medium to read it and consider how its thinking might be applied. I certainly had many thoughts about the context of games; where it began, and how it has changed over time, and why, which also gets one thinking about the future and where it might be going. Inspiring reading and thinking.
He goes on to discuss the actual processes he uses in the composition of songs and the construction of concerts -- and I followed up my reading of this book with a viewing of the Stop Making Sense tour DVD out of interest². Byrne's process really interested me -- he described how he and the Talking Heads would come up with a starting point for a song with a series of changes and he'd more or less improvise a scat over the top of it, just stringing together nonsense syllables for whatever "felt right" with the music he was hearing, recording everything with a simple tape recorder to try and capture the best moments. Later, he'd return to the recording and write lyrics to take the place of the nonsense syllables, but tried to use words which had similar phonemes in them. It's a really interesting way to work³, organically finding the sounds that make sense, and then refining those sounds into words through a more considered process. It called to mind the idea of using a game jam to find the kernel of a game design, and returning to it over subsequent months to flesh it out into a fully-formed game.
The construction of the Stop Making Sense tour is really fantastic as well, how Byrne drew on influences from Noh plays to create something really special and fresh in the American concert scene. Having seen it on DVD, it's something quite surprising4 and unlike anything I've ever seen in a concert.
It's a great read and well worth it for creators of any stripe.
¹The middle chapters tended to deal more with the business side of music making then and now, and the final couple of chapters had to do with the making of a "scene," or the conditions under which new music will flourish. These were interesting in themselves, but my favorite chapters were the early ones.
²More than one person has remarked to me about how this tour was their favorite concert ever. I'm not a frequent concert-goer, and I was young enough in the early 80s that I probably wouldn't have been able to go to this one, but I will say that I really wish I had. The concert video was directed by Jonathan Demme and was pretty fantastic itself.
³It's not, of course, the only way to work. I recently heard an interview with Aimee Mann on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and she described a process of lyric-writing which shared a lot more with certain kinds of poetry, focusing on meter and attempting to find perfect rhymes. Following on the game analogy from the game above, that would be more like working in an established game genre to further refine it.
4I admit, if I owned that "Big Suit," I'd probably wear it all the time.