January 31, 2013
Bloggin' in the Round Table in January
I happened across this month's "Blogs of the Round Table" theme shortly after I wrote my post on my 15th anniversary of joining the games industry. The theme was challenge, and a lot of my article (to embriefenate for the TLDR crowd) dealt with the industry's constant overcoming of challenges, a trend I think will continue as long as people are passionate about the changes that we need to consider and discuss.
January 27, 2013
I Should Have Finished... Rez
I've decided that I don't have a lot more to say about Metal Gear Solid 2, so I'm moving on to comment on the absolutely fantastic Rez, which I played through in one frantic 24 hour period in October.
Rez is perhaps the most elegantly designed pure shooter I've ever played, one whose elegant design is layered and subtle; I don't play lots and lots of shooters, by any means, and I know there are many excellent examples of the form. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's attempt to incorporate synaesthesial elements into the play are well known, and although I had played the game a bit at times to experience just that sensation, it wasn't until I played the whole thing through to the end that I began to understand just how deep the design went.
Thematically, it appears that the game centers around hacking into a computer of some sort; rhythmic, pulsing enemies accompany an electronic music score, and the aesthetics all have a sort of Tron Legacy-like outlining. Percussion accompanies your shots, which come rhythmically, and you only have a small amount of control over the camera -- primarily, you are responsible for directing the firing of a laser-like weapon at targets as they appear. As you progress, you have opportunities to upgrade your avatar, which occurs automatically as you consume various items that are dropped by destroyed enemies. This character grows in complexity, from 8-triangle polyhedron to Buckminster-Fuller-style globe, to humanoid character sitting cross-legged and floating inside a shell. All of this is beautifully presented and aesthetically interesting.
But what's really fantastic about the game is how the levels actually work. The structure of the game is that there are five levels; each of the first four must be sequentially unlocked by defeating the one prior. Each of these four levels contains ten phases; there's an item that the player can shoot that will appear in each of these phases which will skip the remainder of the phase and take the player to the next phase. (In each level, the final phase is a boss battle.) If the player ignores these shortcuts, more of the phase is available to challenge, and the player will naturally progress to the next phase as he completes the remainder of these sections of the level.
The fifth and final level can only be unlocked once all phases of the prior four levels have been tackled in this way; the fifth level has a similar structure, but the difficulty is quite high, and so you'll find yourself revisiting the earlier levels to power up your avatar.
And here elements of the design really surprise. The game maintains information about your performance on these earlier levels, particularly what percentage of those levels you completed and what percentage of the enemies you destroyed. As this latter number climbs, the difficulty of the levels noticeably increases, particularly in the boss fights in the final phases. The game seems evergreen, constantly challenging you even as you might be attempting to simply grind your way to accumulating enough avatar powering up to tackle that final level. And further, the new difficulty of these earlier levels will raise the player's skills sufficiently to be able to approach the very high degree of difficulty of that fifth and final level. Fantastic stuff.
It was a beautiful experience and one that caused me to remark at the time that I can't wait to play all of Mizuguchi's other games. I'll get to them some day. I can't recommend Rez enough to players nor to game designers looking for elegance in design, even in something as apparently simple as a shooter.
January 26, 2013
by David Abrams
Caveat lector: this post contains spoilers.
About a month ago I finished David Abrams' Fobbit as part of the Notable challenge. It was a very quick read reminiscent of that greatest of all war novels, Catch-22¹, but somewhat more somber as it conjures up images of American soldiers currently enmeshed in combat operations around the world.
Its interesting contribution to the war novel is that in some ways it crosses it with an episode of The Office; the titular neologism refers to a soldier who spends almost all of his time in the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base, or FOB, and indeed one of Abrams' tragicomic main characters has made of his apartment-like container trailer something of a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort². While there is a bit of time spent in the field, and also on R&R, much of the novel revolves around the FOB itself, and in a way that makes the dark comedy more accessible to a Stateside reader. It's a familiar setting and set of characters inside of an unfamiliar one.
There are images and situations I'll remember from the book, but this one doesn't have quite the staying power of a Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, though it most definitely recalls novels like Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces. I found it a little less easy to connect with owing to the continuing combat around the world. By the time I read it, Catch-22 referred to a war long past and even substantial distance at publication. You can find humor in anything, and there are some deeply comic moments and situations in this one, so on balance I think it was worth reading.
Previous "Notable": How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Next "Notable": How Music Works by David Byrne
Intro post to my Notable project
¹Indeed, it name-checks Catch-22 at one point explicitly, around a pool.
²In one of the novel's better sections, an officer recently busted down to being the towel boy in the FOB's exercise room reflects on the huge amount of care package material he has managed to get shipped to him from the States from well-meaning and patriotic moms, churches, and schoolchildren. The inventory of materials is staggering and amusing, and deeply farcical.
January 08, 2013
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
Over the holiday break I finished Paul Tough's How Children Succeed; much of it was familiar from a New York Times Magazine article that was the genesis of the book, published a couple of years ago. This has been perhaps the weakest of the Notable books thus far, largely because I was already familiar with a substantial amount of the book from the article -- it doesn't go much deeper than the piece that originated it¹.
The book is a good survey of the current neuroscience which contributes to kids' ability to learn and deal with other developmental challenges, and its inclusion of "curiosity" in the subtitle is absolutely misleading, as it doesn't appear in the book at all that I can recall². That's kind of a shame, because as a parent, I'd really like to know what to do to inspire curiosity in my own kids.
And that brings me to the greatest failing of the book, which is its lack of prescription, other than for the very young. Much of what allows children to succeed is established at a very early age due to what neuroscientists call the "hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal" (HPA) axis, which is reinforced by responsible parenting at a very young age, particularly pre-kindergarten. This is a good prescription for where to spend educational money, though, as a matter of public policy: very early education is extremely important to the development of character, perhaps unsurprisingly, and supporting parents before children get to school age also seems vital.
The contents of one chapter weren't remarked on in the original article at all, and that's a chapter called "How to Think," about chess education in middle school; it's a chapter rich with anecdotes and people with whom I identified. As a former chess player who was pretty decent in high school, though nowhere near as good as the kids in the chapter, I felt the familiar draw of chess anew, which is described as a feeling of being productive. And this may be where this book intersects with video games a bit; chess is one of those pursuits where there's no obvious and clear benefit, especially from the perspective of non-players. But here's a great quote:
[...]Rowson went on to defend himself and his fellow chess players, and he did so on essentially aesthetic grounds: "Chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics," he wrote. The game "is a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility." In Rowson's eyes, two chess players facing off across a board were making a unique, collaborative work of art, and the better they played, the more beautiful the result.
I've seen that beauty at many points in my career, from watching competitive Quake matches to my own personal experiences, those moments where you see someone elevated above all the rest, or when you enter those moments of pure flow. I saw it recently while loved ones played Spaceteam together over the break, that collaborative energy that created two or more cooperative souls, if only for a little while, getting in sync, each strengthening their mental model of the other person. It's a beautiful thing.
¹It's not a terribly long book, and so I'd probably recommend it to people who haven't read the article. The article is probably online somewhere in the NYT archive, though, so you might be better off with that.
²Checking the index again, I find about twenty references to character in different forms and subheadings, and grit in about eight -- curiosity doesn't even make a single appearance in the index and I really don't remember anything about it from the text.
January 03, 2013
Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the day I first joined the games industry and made the programming of video games my profession.
It's difficult really to remember what life was like before that, because so much of what is part of my life started around then. I've been a parent in the industry nearly the whole time -- my first son was born about eight months from my start date at LucasArts, and my second son two years later. Most of my close friends are friends I gained through my work, though of course not all. I've grown significantly over that time, in my professional habits and my personal hobbies, and it's really hard to cast my mind back.
The one constant through it all has been change and challenge. When I started, significant changes were the explosion of 3D¹ and the threat of the dot-com boom; LucasArts hemorrhaged employees while the economy enjoyed what turned out to be an immense bubble, but at the time the United States was enjoying what appeared to be limitless prosperity. Some artists had trouble making the transition to 3D and quietly drifted away to other things. When the bubble burst, some of those we had lost returned to games, some didn't. The industry grew and grew.
The next significant change and challenge, at least where I worked, was the switch to focusing on console games, another milestone. In the time before I arrived, LucasArts had enjoyed a diverse portfolio that included Nintendo 64 titles with fairly great success and PlayStation titles with perhaps more modest success, but its real bread and butter was the PC. The company started to put an even greater emphasis in the next generation of consoles with titles like Rogue Squadron on the GameCube and my own first game, Star Wars: Starfighter, on the PlayStation 2. These machines sparked another technical trend that has now come to dominate the industry, the ubiquity of parallel processing; for a long time, PCs would remain a bastion of a simpler programming model, but no more. As with 3D before it, some programmers had trouble adapting to the model and moved on. But still the industry grew and grew.
The industry grew and so did its audience. Now that truly beautiful experiences were possible on your TV, without all the finicky driver madness of the PC, consoles came to dominate more and more each year; I seem to remember that around this time Electronic Arts was the first third-person publisher to crack the $1B milestone for revenue on a model dominated by movie licenses. Games became more complex and while there were bright spots of personal expression from design auteurs, they certainly seemed less frequent than they had a decade before. Game teams of course also grew in size; the first team I worked on was around thirty or forty people, with a peak programming team size of perhaps seven, and it has never been smaller than that; now I work with a team of thirty programmers as part of a larger team, and there are development houses who throw truly staggering numbers of people at projects.
As audiences grew, budgets grew and games became more and more a hit-driven business. A high degree of polish became really important² and this was increasingly a demand on the technical team. As a result, crunch times became a truly staggering problem in the industry that drove people away, perhaps really reaching its limits when the "EA spouse" story broke, but still the industry grew and grew.
We started to fracture only recently, perhaps in the last seven years or so, in the latter half of my career thus far. I've read constantly about how one or another segment of gaming has died or is going to die, dire predictions that we're not reaching our full potential and therefore we'll be pigeonholed like comic books were, how this issue or that issue is going to kill off our industry. Adventure games were dead, until they weren't -- I can't tell you how many GOTYs The Walking Dead got, but it wasn't a small number. AAA games are apparently dying -- except I'll tell you right now, they aren't. Budgets will continue to increase, but the market will correct for that; games that don't meet the bar won't sell, and there may be fewer teams that can meet the bar, but there will be a market for AAA games for the foreseeable future. And still the industry will grow.
What I see, again and again, is growth and maturation. I'm glad to hear voices calling for more diversity in both our games and our creators, but then I look down at the iPad I'm typing this up on and about a hundred games of all different kinds, many of them not violent at all, and coming from all sorts of team sizes and make-ups. There are so many roads into game development now -- indeed, you can sit down and program games that are hundreds of times as complex as my very first games³ in your browser or on your phone for a relatively minimal investment. I feel in many ways like we've come full circle from where I began, as a player, but with the cultural heft of products which sell millions of copies behind them.
I understand when people complain that we aren't diverse enough -- we aren't, though I think as a whole the industry is getting better. I understand when people say that AAA is dying -- even though I know it's here to stay4 and that we're simply going to be a smaller percentage of a substantially bigger pie. We do need to explore areas other than violence -- but we're doing so. We do need greater variety -- but I look down at the various devices I carry around with me day to day and I know we're attacking that problem too. I'm glad that people are concerned about these things and demanding that we not rest on what we've done. We shouldn't. And I know we won't.
In an interview a few years before his death, Sir Edmund Hillary was asked whether there were any peaks left conquering in the world, and he remarked that there were a few climbs of interest left... but that he wasn't going to tell, since he might still like to be the one to be first. I feel much the same way about game technology: lots of challenges remain in this field that I love, some that have been identified and some that haven't. I hope I'll scale them along with the rest of you some day, because there are an awful lot of truly great big and interesting mountains out there left to conquer. Here's to the fifteen years just past, in an eye blink, and to whatever comes next.
¹In fact, as I recall LucasArts shipped what it claimed would be its last 2D title ever in the year I started, or perhaps shortly before, with Curse of Monkey Island. It claimed around that time that forever more it would be developing and publishing only 3D-accelerated games. It was sort of like Dylan going electric, an immense surprise to those who loved the 2D adventure games we were really known for. I don't think it was premature, but I bet you could still find a few people on the internet today who are angry about it.
²Recently I've played PS2 games that lacked the polish we see today, and it's hard to imagine how games like those could even be released today, with issues like enemies popping into existence right before the player's eyes, stuttering animations and all sorts of issues.
³I.e. the games I first played and programmed back on my Apple ][+ or on the mainframe at my dad's work.
4Hollywood's a great model for this -- sure, there was room for an indie mindset in film, too, but keep in mind that Skyfall, from a violent AAA series that began in the 1960s, was nonetheless the biggest selling in its history, despite largely following a similar formula to all that had gone before.
January 02, 2013
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Well, I'm off to a right start, discussing both politics and religion in the first week or so of blogging the Notable project here on the blog. It's another sticky subject; bear with me, I'm most definitely not trying to offend.
I've been really interested in Colm Tóibín since his brilliant "The Master," an imagining of the interior life of Henry James, an immensely satisfying read (and a cause for sending several of James's novels to my kindle). I've also enjoyed his "Brooklyn" and "Homage to Catalonia," which I read this past year remembering my own trip there a couple of years ago. But I was surprised to find an Irishman writing what is bound to be seen as something heretical by the Church -- but then, of course, Toibin is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.
The Testament of Mary is something akin to a Gospel, although obviously an imagined one, and is narrated from a short time after Jesus' death; it has an immediacy that the four Gospels in the New Testament lacks, and is additionally from the perspective of Jesus' mother (not Mary Magdalene).
Tóibín chooses to elongate certain passages and dramatically shorten others; he seems to be attempting to remind us that history¹ has a way of enlarging certain events while compressing others. In particular, he strains for a kind of realism of what Mary must have been feeling shortly after her son's death, and what emphases she would place on the events she witnessed close to it.
It begins in a way reminiscent of the story of Penelope after the presumed loss at sea of Odysseus, with Mary watched over by disciples of her son and essentially confined to her house, and Tóibín manages a neat and nearly undetectable trick when her narrative casts back to events starting from the raising of Lazarus. What stands out here is how she sees her son as her son, and not as the leader and historical and religious figure we of course now see him as -- and Tóibín's choices throughout suggest how small events might have grown into bigger ones and how bigger moments are somewhat abstracted in the Bible. For example, the Station of the Cross involving Jesus meeting Mary is merely a glance between them, whereas she recounts in dire detail the Crucifixion itself.
Certainly one can see things here that would rile followers of the Church; Tóibín is writing from his own beliefs of what may have happened, and with some historical justification to it. It's an imaginative work of the complexity of the relationship of a mother with a son who has drawn a large following without being overtly sentimental. Well worth reading.
¹I'll take the Gospels as history of a sort, though not entirely contemporaneous with Jesus -- if I recall my own reading, the Gospel of Mark is earliest and the others follow after him, mostly written in the late first century and early second century. I'm an ex-Catholic myself, so much of this is down to memory.