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April 28, 2005

Discussion: Versailles


Back when I was a researcher at the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation, I was thinking a lot about educational software. The software package we employed was based around human factors issues¹, but was branching out into behavioral issues as well. Ultimately one of those issues was developed into a Siggraph paper, which gave me one of the few published papers I have from my graduate work².

In any case, all of this is a long-winded introduction to an idea I had at that time, which was just a bit after 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing here in the Americas. My thinking was that it would be an interesting educational tool to build a simulation where you could walk about on one or all of the three ships, speaking with people who did different jobs on board, seeing their travails from disease, death, weather, having a chat with Columbus himself, whatever. The idea wasn't to be specifically entertaining, but to instead offer a richly informative experience which gave you the opportunity to view the issues of mid-millenial ocean crossings more or less first-hand.

At the time, I was very interested in some work a professor of my undergraduate acquaintance was doing on CD-roms, then an emerging "multimedia" platform. Come to think of it, his prototype might have involved The Grapes of Wrath. While I liked the idea of a sort of hypertext, multimedia Annotated Alice, I didn't think it went nearly far enough to really bring the source material alive -- everything he had to offer was passive, except for the actual reading (but then, as now, books are better on paper) and the clicking of various links.

In a lot of ways, Kathryn Davis' Versailles is the book version of such a project. We get to interact with Marie Antoinette from a number of vantage points, including her own both pre- and post-mortem, and also through some moderately varied media, in the forms of little vignettes structured like plays. It's an interesting format, and it's really interesting is how the multifaceted approach brings a richness to the material. It's a welcome departure from the more standard formats, such as used in A World Away.

I still think a Columbus project such as I describe would be an interesting application, though granted, probably with a gross market of only slightly higher than Thomas Watson's original projections of the computer market4. What would be really entirely interesting to me would be to start off with the basic interaction mechanisms, and then extend it out to include a sort of "historical journey" mode, which would cover what we know of the paths he took and the historical record of what happened on the way. After that, why not turn it into a fully interactive simulation, with you leading the tiny fleet to find the spices of India? Sort of an updated Oregon Trail.

For a long time I didn't really know what to make of this book, as far as games go -- I had just regrounded the blog at about that time and was finding myself wondering if I shouldn't just drop it. But listening to The Mammoth Cheese today with its "living historian" character (more on that later), I suddenly remembered my own ideas about how to bring history alive.

You see, history for me has never been a hugely interesting subject; or at least, it hadn't until just recently. Lately I've been having encounters with it a little bit in my reading, and those encounters have both been making me take a greater interest and also taking me back. Having never been a history buff, but always being interested in technology, I spent a lot of time wondering, back when massive storage started becoming available to PCs, how to really bring that stuff alive. I think it's really doable -- I don't know if there's a market large enough to support the idea, but I think it's doable, and could maybe win history some converts.

¹I use this term loosely. Software is something that really needs engineering, not constant piling on of stuff. A bunch of graduate students slaving away for years without any engineering discipline beyond what they themselves put in place is no way to build a useful piece of software. To give you the sort of idea of what it was originally built for, an early project was sponsored by John Deere who wanted to know what kind of visibility there was from within a CAD model of their next prototype bulldozer.
²Some of my co-authors are still at it; a new paper appeared in last year's Siggraph about a substantively similar talk. Which ties this back to games again, since they used SSX' Zoe as their conversational agent.
³I attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, and then returned to the Ph.D. program in Computer Science, in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
4If you're not familiar with the reference, IBM's president Thomas Watson said in 1943 or so that he thought that "... there is a world market for maybe five computers."

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:49 PM | Comments (0)

April 24, 2005

Discussion: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

I've always loved Steinbeck; well, not always, it wasn't there a priori in me or anything, but I've loved him since I encountered East of Eden at the start of my junior year in high school¹. I read a couple of others at that time: Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley. Before long I had moved on to another passion in reading, as I recall, but Of Mice and Men was a great book and one of the more memorable forays into literature of my young adulthood. In fact, it may have been the touchstone of my current literary life -- the reason behind some of my later literary marathon reading sessions that occasionally gripped me through college². I don't have time for that kind of reading anymore, but I loved it while I could get it. So many books, so little time.

That's a rather long-winded introduction to talk about how, years later, I've returned to Steinbeck to listen to The Grapes of Wrath during my commute. For those of you who haven't read it, I want to talk a little bit about its form, because it's germane to the discussion at hand.

Steinbeck alternates between long chapters about an Oklahoma family moving west to California to work as migrant farmers and shorter, tighter chapters about different aspects about what was happening in the United States at that time -- the economic pressures, the congolomeration of small farms into what would eventually become agribusiness, the life of the road, the economics of migrant farming (and the landholders and guilds which would set the price for an hour of work), what cotton does to earth. Steinbeck has it both ways, focusing on the small, personal story of one family and still capturing, through a multitude of voices, the large story of a huge change in the American economy, away from small farms to the more efficient and less humane large ones. It makes for compelling reading -- while you are caught up and driven forward by the perseverance of the poor Joad family, you nonetheless understand that for a country of this size, efficiency in our agricultural practices is enormously important. You rail against the heartlessness of capitalism's forces, and the market, while knowing at the same time what those changes in our economy permitted. It's an extraordinary novel. You feel sympathy for those who were swept up in it, and at the same time, rationally understand what progress demands. You hope that we'll never see times like those again, while secretly fearing that we are seeing similar forces today, with the movement of jobs oversees, and wondering what brave new worlds our new efficiencies will bring us, if any, and wondering if the extraordinary compensations top executives receive actually squanders a great deal of that efficiency. And then you wonder if maybe I've digressed a little too much into the political here, so let's move on.

That said, there could have been a lot more humanity in what happened in this move to more efficient use of our resources. The conditions that migrant workers faced were inhumane in the extreme. Capitalism has a very ugly side, and Steinbeck unmasked it mercilessly. He was faced with criticisms that he was a Communist sympathizer -- but he did a great service in shining a light at the dark corners that our economic restructuring was creating, hiding in the most sun-bleached geographical areas of our country.

Quite a book.

In the couple of weeks since I finished it, I've been nagged by the suspicion that this form appears in games, and it finally occurred to me where I've glimpsed it. It's there in some of the console RPGs, in particular; Final Fantasy IX has almost exactly this sort of form. You have an implacable, cold, unfeeling foe in Fate, hidden behind mortal actors, and you see glimpses of the machinations of those mortal actors throughout the story. You see bits and pieces of what the political upheaval does to the ordinary folk. You even have persecution of one of the characters, the little black mage, Vivi.

There are definitely differences, and these come from what we want from games, apparently, and what we get from literature³. The biggest and most important of these is that Zidane and his company can face the forces head-on: they actually encounter and defeat Fate. It's as if Tom Joad could walk out into the Platonic Form-World and smack Capitalism over the head with a Sledgehammer. While we'd love to ease the Joads' pain, we know that life simply doesn't work that way -- in the case of the Okies, many would die of simple starvation or malnutrition at a time when we were producing more food than we actually even needed.

But of course, we turn to games now to feel empowered, to overcome inexorable forces. But do we have to? Can we turn to games instead to better know ourselves, to better understand the human condition, even if that knowledge is painful? I read The Grapes of Wrath because I knew that I would come out of it knowing a little more, being a person capable of greater understanding, of perhaps touching a little bit of truth.

But the really crazy thing of it is, I actually really liked Final Fantasy IX. I was very moved by the ending, and I loved the way it turned in on itself at the very end. I sat through those 15 or 20 minutes of cutscenes and was moved.

But then, at that point, the game was already over. All the interacting was done. I may have pressed a few buttons to move dialog along, but there was no gaming. I was watching the story, and the story had very little to do with all the actual play -- the selection of Phoenix Downs and special Sword Attacks and whatever that made up each of a thousand little battles. In fact, any of the stuff that really moved me in the game had little to do with the game at all. It was all just the story, the skippable bits. The loops didn't contain the emotion at all; it was all safely non-interactive.

I suspect that's because we know how to do that. We know how to make non-interactive content that grabs us emotionally, we've been doing it for thousands of years, long before we even wrote it all down. What's keeping me up nights4 is whether we can get that emotional grab from the interactive bits. Well, not really whether -- I believe that we can -- but how. Does it lie in interactive storytelling? In the interesting work they're doing down at Cecropia? How can we build it?

And if we build it, will they come?

¹It would probably not make Mr. Rainnie happy to learn that I had merely read enough of the book to be able to make him believe that I had read the damn thing over the course of my summer break, along with some other novel which I've since forgotten. That said, it would probably then please him that having invested enough time to read 200 or so pages in a marathon session the two days before I was to discuss it with him, I then went on to finish the book at just as feverish a pace. Man, I loved that book. I may have to read it again, now that I think about it.
²After seeing the Anthony Quinn telemovie of The Old Man and the Sea, I went down to Van Pelt and checked out the book, returned to my dorm room, and read it cover to cover. It was only 150 pages or so, but I started at 11:30pm or so on a Sunday night (and I had a 9:00 class, I think), and read it through. I read Portnoy's Complaint a month or so later, in a single sitting. I was voracious. I hit the limit on the number of books an undergraduate was permitted to have out from the library at one time, which was around 50. Thankfully, they upped it for me.
³Though I hope you've read between my lines enough by now to realize that I'm hoping that games (or interactive entertainment, if you prefer that rubrick) can aspire a little higher, in time, hopefully in time for me to see and enjoy it.
4...aside from a bad caffeine habit...

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:09 PM | Comments (5)

April 20, 2005

Discussion: Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso

Although I think it's no where near as good as Spirited Away or Totoro or even Kiki, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed Porco Rosso, which is one of Miyazaki's earlier films. It has that same slightly askew look on life of all Miyazaki's work -- ensconced in marvelously beautiful scenes and settings. This time, we are in a sun-drenched Mediterranean, in the 1930s, and we're in a sort of parallel universe where there are a huge number of barnstorming planes flying around the sea, with air pirates and a huge Italian air police force.

Did I mention the main character is a humanoid pig? Ah, only from the mind of Miyazaki.

The thing I most thought of while watching this was how much I'd like to go back and play Crimson Skies, probably on the Xbox¹. The PC version had a ton of charm, and since I did a couple of space/flight action games for LucasArts a few years back, I've played a few of these. I played only a few missions on the PC², and loved the atmosphere, the alternate universe... the swashbuckling feel of the game.

It's really rare that I watch a movie and think of a specific game that I ought to go out and play afterwards (licensed games excepted), so I feel practically obligated to do so. Of course, many of the movies I watch don't have a clear game that's related to them, but I guess that's what I get a chance to lament about here in the blog ;)

Anyone else out there in the ether have a game that a movie inspired them to play -- assuming it's not the game based on the movie?

¹It's worth noting that I think the critical mass is there now where I feel like I've got to get an Xbox. Psychonauts put it over the top for me this week, with Jade Empire pushing me up the hill last week. Not that I remotely have time for another console in my life.
²Via a borrowed copy that I felt I should return, since I was already starting to crunch on SWRC.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:29 PM | Comments (3)

April 18, 2005

Discussion: The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone

After I saw Hellboy last year and enjoyed it so much, a friend recommended Guillermo Del Toro's earlier work, The Devil's Backbone. I didn't really know what the movie was about, except that it had some crazy looking cover, and I was really pleasantly surprised -- it's a great ghost story, not at all what I was expecting.

The movie is about secrets, as many ghost stories are. After all, what keeps ghosts behind but secrets about how they died? Along comes a hero, and that hero figures out the story behind the ghost, and everything turns out okay. In fact, one of the more popular ghost stories to make it into the movies in recent times -- The Ring -- plays on our expectations that once the secrets are known, the story is over; then it turns that expectation on its head¹.

One thing that struck me while watching is that the effect that a two hour movie can achieve with a single ghost. Games throw tons and tons of things at us, repetitively, and obsessively, but ghost and horror stories just tease us with a single or a few elements.

I'm certainly not saying games are bad in this respect, just different. After all, Resident Evil's hooks were in me long before Lisa showed up -- and then they bit in and really drew blood. Lisa anchored the story in a sudden and clear way; before her appearance the game was starting to drift a bit, it felt ungrounded².

But I'm wondering what kind of game could be made with a single, compelling otherworldly character.

The closest game I can think of that I've played in recent memory didn't set that character as the antagonist at all. Ico worked for me largely because I was compelled to protect Yorda due to how well she was characterized. There were lots of enemies around that I had to protect her from, but I think they were unnecessary. For me, the experience would have been complete if I could have scared them off merely by my presence, if just being near her could save her -- I found the combat rather uninteresting. The management of the distance between me and Yorda would have been that much more tight. It could have sustained me throughout a game of Ico's length, with its lush, oil-painterly settings and exploration. It would have been even more pure, and probably would have sold even fewer copies.

Experimentation to see what can be achieved along these lines is expensive, though. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how much the expense of everything is holding us back, in certain ways.

For example, there was a recent discussion of MMO 'permadeath' online -- I only read the blurb that showed up in the RSS feed of slashdot games, not the whole article, I just haven't got around to it yet³. And I was thinking that it would be a really cool experiment to see what developed in that space; after all, you can create new things sometimes by taking away, and who knows what might develop? I can imagine an economy of resurrection developing, with priests wielding huge power which might drive politics in the game.

It's interesting to me that one of the few places outside of games I've encountered MMOs -- in a description in Tad Williams' Otherland series4 -- involved a boy who had built up a true hero inside the game he played, a graphics extravaganza set in a fairly traditional fantasy space. The boy got distracted while playing for a moment, and the game killed him, and that was the end of Thorgar or whatever his name was, and it rocked the world.

Our MMOs don't have heroes like that. It's like Brad Bird's message in The Incredibles: if everyone is special, no one is. If everyone can be 60th level just by putting in the time, where are the heroes?

Well, I've ranged from ghost stories and survival horror, to MMOs, 3200 page behemoth fantasy fiction, and Pixar now. Time for bed. I'll be coming back to these issues again, though. They're still rattling around.

¹To good effect. I didn't care for The Ring overall, but I really liked the ending, from the bits when they were in the well until the denouement.
²There was also a glorious scare moment when Lisa first appeared of "wtf was that?" with which I regaled Nathan, who had recommended the game to me. It got me good and gave me an appreciation for what the genre could do. I don't think I've ever had moments of sheer terror from movies (since I was young that is), like I had at certain spots of RE. Movies have worn out the capability to really scare me; they telegraph everything too much these days.
³There is so much stuff I want to do in a given day, and I end up getting only to some of it. For example, I'm reading The Fortress of Solitude right now, and I keep trying to get in at least half an hour a day, but even that's not really enough, I'd like it to be an hour. So there goes an hour, and things like articles referenced from slashdot just have to wait.
4Yes, Mom & Dad, I still read popcorn science fiction and fantasy every now and again...

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:10 PM | Comments (0)

Jamie Likes SWRC

Quick blurb this morning¹; Jamie Fristrom, designer of Spiderman 2, long-time writer of articles about game development, gamedevblogger, and friend has posted up on his blog his notes on Star Wars: Republic Commando.

I'll have more to say about some of his notes later on in his comments and perhaps here, but for now, thanks, Jamie!

¹Since I'm at work and shouldn't really be posting at all...

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:04 AM | Comments (3)

April 16, 2005

Discussion: Elephant


Elephant was extraordinarily compelling to me, while at the same time so horrible to contemplate. An ordinary day in an ordinary school, with a tension so thick in the viewer that you feel like something might just snap, because Elephant is a fictionalization of Columbine.

Van Sant, the writer-director, makes some interesting choices. The kids he employs as actors are all unknowns, and they all portray kids with their own names. They seem like ordinary kids, even those who portray the analogues to Harris and Klebold. They all look wonderfully alive, just doing the things that kids do.

When it came right down to it, the most significant exception I could take with the movie was the portrayal of the videogame they liked to play. You'll have to see the movie for yourself to see the blandness of what they were playing -- there was apparently no game there at all, just an endless succession of people walking across a blank space, who you could kill with different weapons. If these were the games we had available to us, we wouldn't play any more¹.

It's not to say that Van Sant blames the games at all, not really. Van Sant has said that if you do anything obsessively, it's bound to influence your behavior, even if it's something apparently simple like solitaire. But he hasn't, to my knowledge, tried to draw a causal link between the games they played and the killings.

Although I think the title is supposed to refer to the parable of the blind men and the elephant², I kept thinking about it as "the elephant in the room". I don't believe that videogames cause real-world violence; but to me, the fact that so many people apparently do is the elephant in the room. I'm not sure how we'll ever connect with those people, and I think there's quite a lot of them.

The other thing it got me thinking about was a GamaSutra question of the week which asked whether game developers have a moral obligation to teach values in their games.

My answer is no, of course, it has to be no. I believe in a fair amount of freedom in this regard, just as I believe in the freedom of the first amendment. I was surprised, actually, just glancing over the responses³ how many came in for and against -- they had plenty of people saying we have a moral responsibility.

What I will say, however, is that I think it might be to the moral benefit of game developers to examine the issue closely, to examine how we present moral choices in the games we make. In a lot of cases, it might be to benefit of the games as well. I'm not advocating for game developers to push a particular morality on me, but I wouldn't mind seeing games which present moral quandaries. Games where the designers have spent significant time thinking about those quandaries themselves will likely present them in the most interesting ways, and thus, likely be of moral benefit to the developers who spend time pondering them.

I came across one such issue in Neverwinter Nights: a woman gave me a quest to find out what had happened to her daughter or something. While I don't remember the specifics of the quest, what I remember is coming back to that woman and having the option to tell the truth about the grisly death of her daughter, even though it might be extremely harmful to her, or to lie to her and tell her that her daughter had gone far far away, but that she was alive and well.

I had to stop and think a moment: would I rather someone lied to me, if I had no way to verify the truth? Would I rather believe a falsehood and be happy, or to live with the truth, which was horrible?

I chose to tell her the truth; I figured that we can believe what we want to believe even in the face of the truth, and she could still believe a lie if she preferred, but that I took away her moral agency in lying to her. It wasn't a huge moral quandary, but it did make me stop and think for a moment, and I appreciated that. It's a rare thing, and I hope the designer responsible for that felt some pride at the moral quandary he presented, at least, to me. It happens too rarely.

Of course, the nice thing about video games is that you can go back to a save point a few minutes back and find out what happens if you make a different choice. So I did.

Same XP.

¹I looked into this a bit, btw. Van Sant was going to use Doom but couldn't get the rights to use it, though he didn't say why in the interview I consulted. If it's because id blocked him, I can both understand why they might not want to and still feel a little disappointed in them.
²Each man feels a different part of the elephant and thus each comes up with a different explanation of what they're finding.
³I'm holding off reading them until I've finished this entry.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:07 AM | Comments (3)

April 13, 2005

Discussion: Ikiru


Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, which roughly translates as "To Live", is a wonderful movie about a man who discovers he has cancer and makes a great effort to overcome the bureaucracy in which he serves by any means that he can and do something good for the world in the time he has left. He determines to build a playground, to bring the civil service to bear on converting a flooded area in the midst of a working-class neighborhood into an area with grass, swingsets, and monkey bars. It's a humble little story, which reminds me in its scope a little of something like The Bicycle Thief.

Unlike other simple tales, this one is told in a really interesting way, which is primarily what concerns me here. At the beginning, Watanabe learns that he is ill¹, and it causes him to stop and take stock. He tries to tell his son, but he cannot; he and his son do not have a relationship in which such sharing is possible. He would tell his wife, and perhaps does -- he spends time burning incense before her shrine, for he is a widower.

Then, after a chance encounter with a young woman from his office whom he previously considered brash, he latches on to her, trying to get at the heart of what makes her so joyously alive. When he was her boss, he found her a nuisance -- always laughing and carrying on, telling slightly off-color jokes and never taking anything very seriously. Now that he is dying, he has a desperate wish to live a little, but he doesn't know how, and he spends time in her company just trying to understand how.

When finally she tires of him, he is crushed, he finally returns to work, and we assume he will just go on plodding until he keels over at his desk. But suddenly, he gets a fire in his eyes and we soon know what he plans.

It is at this point that Kurosawa does something remarkable -- he moves ahead in time to the funeral of this man, where people reminisce about what happened next. We get a fractured series of flashbacks which collapse the remaining months of Watanabe's life. In fact, we only see how he lived through the lens of his death, and the effect he had on people around him. The effect is initially jarring, but it so perfectly fits the film, the culture, and solves a technical problem for Kurosawa: how to present six months of what would mostly be drudgery in a quick way that nonetheless conveys an essential thread, and doesn't even feel all that fractured². We immediately adjust to how the story is now being told, after a momentary confusion about where the film will go next, now that our protagonist is dead.

It's a profound way of telling a story, and upon reflection, it made me think that something like this should appear in a game. It sort of has, already, and there may be games of which I'm unaware that employ such a strategy -- if there are, please educate me. It makes me think most of the structure of the story of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time which was so enormously charming. But that wasn't quite exactly it -- there was simply a wonderfully ornate frame around a more conventional story in PoP.

We constantly play games in which we move in time in leaps and jumps; why not a story in which we know the outcome and yet are driven to play the good bits by the formal structure of the story? I don't want to play Ikiru's story, per se. I just think that this sort of storytelling is entirely possible in our medium and would address certain problems that we encounter or might encounter.

The other thing it reminded me was of my idea for how to present save games. Many years ago, there was a radio program named Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Dollar was an insurance investigator who tracked down thefts and such. What was interesting was that the story was constantly moved forward by entries in his expense account. It might go something like this:

Dollar: Entry #5: 50¢, for a cup of coffee.
Joe Blow looked ragged when I met him at the Ten-Spot Café on the corner of Five and Dime. I knew he knew something, so I came right to the point.

In other words, the story was constantly helped along by setting the stage for what was going to happen next with entries from Dollar's final report. It was simple and completely effective, and it kept you up to date if you happened to miss the 15 minutes the night before. (In the interests of full disclosure, I wasn't alive when this was on the radio, and I've only heard complete episodes strung together. But I can still appreciate the format and what it allowed them to do.)

One problem I'd love to see solved with something like this would be keeping me up-to-date on my games. You see, it often takes me months to get all the way through a game -- I have a lot of other interests³ and I have kids, and a long commute, etc. So, it's not uncommon for me to come back to a game having not picked it up in a while and say, "What the hell was I doing?" At times like this I may stumble for a while, or I may simply hit GameFAQs and skim until I find something more familiar.

What I'd really love is for a game to load up and then, if I haven't played in a while, find an in-context mechanism to remind me what I was doing. "I checked the local newspaper -- but there weren't any messages in the personals for me. Looks like I'm on my own to find the kingpin. Damn." or "My dreams were feverish, an image of the hilt of my sword glowing with a hunger for the blood of the Xvarts. I must find that tribe and eliminate each of them for what they did to my..."

I'm a part of the audience that is getting older. I have other things I want from games, but some simple things could make my experience much more enjoyable, and hopefully, by extension, make it easier for people who don't have tons of time to devote to it to enjoy some of our games.

¹It's more accurate to say that he deduces it from the specific form of the misinformation that he's given. It's a strange little scene that can't really be adequately explained. Apparently it is rude in Japan to tell someone that they are dying.
²The man was a master. I knew this. But I've seen several of his films over the past year and I've gone and added several more to my queue on the basis of this latest one.
³Including spending an hour a few times a week writing in this blog...

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2005

Discussion: American Splendors

American Splendor

When I read the American Splendor anthology, I found myself getting thoroughly curious about the film version. After all, here was a collection of what? vignettes? short fiction? ruminations? from a single author and a hodge-podge of illustrators. The stories, such as they are, are remarkably episodic, not really lending themselves to a particular logical thread from which a movie could be constructed. So I moved the movie up near the top of the queue and popped it in the day it arrived.

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff", says Harvey as he excitedly describes his ideas for a comic book to his friend R. Crumb, progenitor of the underground comix movement which started in the 70s. And so it is. From the moment I read the first story in the anthology, in which Harvey discusses his discovery of a second and then a third "Harvey Pekar" in the Cleveland phone book, I was hooked. Here was a guy who was taking ordinary events and presenting himself as a character, fairly wide open for everyone to see.

The film is no less interesting. Harvey Pekar himself appears in it, as narrator and as a subject of interviews, and of archival footage¹. We're introduced to some of his "characters," who are real people -- the portrayal of Toby in the comics and on-screen seems too strange to be true, until the real Toby is introduced discussing the categories of "genuine Jelly Bellies" and we realize that art is no match for life where strangeness is concerned.

The movie, the comic, both are uncategorifiable. Both are biographical, sure, but not really biography or autobiography. They have a sense of real-time flow about them -- even when events from the 70s are juxtaposed with events from the 90s. Like life, these are pretty complex works.

Yes, life is pretty complex; lately I feel more and more like videogames can't capture that, and yet, I want them to, I want this entertainment that I love to have a deeper dimension. I want games, in all their seriousness, their serious play², to evolve into something that can teach me more than the muscle memorization needed to beat the Emperor Ing in the Sky Temple in Metroid Prime: Echoes³.

It's like when I was young and read tons of science fiction and fantasy books, and then grew up and now read classics and literary fiction, I want that next step to come from my games, but I just don't feel that level of complexity coming.

Sure, I think that part of it is that our industry is young. But movies were tackling difficult subjects almost straight off the bat, once all the "look, we can watch someone sneeze" experimentation was done with. In our era of more, better, faster, you'd think we'd get to more interesting, better investigation, faster than other industries that have preceded us.

I wonder sometimes if the paucity of ponderance of real and interesting questions is due to the very nature of our medium. Our strength is our interactivity -- it's what distinguishes us. But it's also a tough weakness, because something that can deliver a powerful experience in our medium demands someone capable of participating in or even generating a powerful experience.

I don't know what to do about it -- you can't come here and expect answers to all of life's persistent questions -- but when I think about the power of these other media to involve me and make me grow, and contrast that with a medium in which I am even more actively taking part, I end up thinking that games should be able to deliver far more than they are. I came into this industry thinking about how important it was to be a part of the beginnings of this exciting new medium, to help explore its potential. I'm seven years in and haven't really had that opportunity. I've been playing even longer -- and the games, with a few exceptions, aren't hugely different from what I played on the Apple II and early PCs, though they are definitely prettier.

I don't want to sit and bemoan our industry; far from it, as I still take a lot of pleasure from it, and I don't think it has to be defended as an art form -- it already is. I also think there are a lot of factors here. After all, anyone who can afford a couple of legal pads and a pen can write a novel. It doesn't cost that much to get into film anymore. Even a person who can't draw can manage to produce a series of comic books, as Pekar demonstrates (and incidentally, as he inspires me to do). But game development at high production quality is "pretty complex stuff" too -- and expensive as all hell.

Modding starts to address this question. So does The Sims (hey, google "Sims Stories" and you'll see what I mean). I can tell from reading a few of these that they are important to the people who are writing them, that they have a lot invested. And so, maybe there's some potential there. In the case of modding, though, there's a huge bar for entry -- technical know-how, ability to glean what you need from the web, tools that don't often work as advertised. And in The Sims it's clear that the depth of interaction is pretty limited -- what they've decided to model and not model implicitly places limitations on the play space. I don't want to spend time making sure they get to the bathroom and don't set their houses on fire. (Aside from people like A. M. Holmes and Michel Houellebecq, you're not likely to find much of that in "serious" literature.)

This post has probably gone on long enough, and yet I'm still nowhere near knowing what to do about this; in fact, I'm finding myself thinking about all sorts of other things with regards to this issue. (E.g., in role-playing games we are sometimes able to involve players in more powerful stories -- but at the cost of interactivity, and through the medium of film -- what to do about that? If we treat games only as wish-fulfillment, can they ever be a medium for growth? Should I go out and hustle up a copy of the Sims, even though I have concerns about all this other stuff?) So, I'll leave it for now, and I'll be coming back to it. After all, I love this medium.

¹Indeed, the film contains a masterstroke moment of film-making in which Paul Giamatti (as Harvey) leaves the backstage ready room of Late Night with David Letterman. The camera tracks what we figure to be his movement, mostly tracking across a blank wall, until it catches the TV monitor in the corner of the room... where Harvey Pekar walks out. If the rest of the movie had been bad (and it wasn't), it thorougly would have been redeemed by this one moment.
²Thank you, Daniel Hillis, for your impassioned speech at GDC on our behalf a few years ago.
³For non-gamers -- yes, that's a real example from a real game. And yes, I feel a little ridiculous describing it.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:39 PM | Comments (2)

April 09, 2005

Discussion: Stalag 17

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 is a really interesting movie: the protagonist is actually not all that likeable, though we come to identify with him a bit when he is wrongly accused of spying for the Germans in the World War II prison camp that is the film's setting¹.

William Holden's character, Sargent Sefton, is constantly on the make. He's like the titular character in King Rat, always looking for advantage, trying to make his stay in a prison camp a bit more comfortable. The other men hate him for it. We get to dislike him early on, too: in the first scene, he bets against two men who are trying to escape, taking cigarettes from all the men in the barracks. When the machine gunfire starts, and then is silenced, we wish for him to give them back, to forgive the bets. But he sticks to his guns.

Escape from World War II POW camps (or things like WWII POW camps) have been covered before in the videogame medium. But something like what goes on throughout this movie, the maneuvering and posturing, the trying to figure out who's the bad guy -- well, that really hasn't. I hope that there was a little something like that in The Thing, but I don't remember anything from the reviews -- if anyone can help out with a little factual checking on that, I'd love to know.

Lately, writing and thinking about videogames, I feel like I should go back and pick up a copy of The Sims, since it seems like these sorts of things would be something you could explore inside of that game. But I really just want to explore social aspects of interaction under extreme circumstances -- I don't want to babysit Sims filling their needs going to the bathroom and playing pinball. Interpersonal interaction is the subject of some pretty great fiction and film -- why don't we ever see it in games? Too boring? Medium too likely to sink into the uncanny valley when portraying that? Lack of cojones on the parts of big publishers?

I don't have any obvious answers. I've seen pastiches of it used as a means to an end -- for example, how you stand with regards to factions in the Mercenaries game published by my former employer. In some role-playing games, the choices you make may prune or expand dialog trees later on, or change the endings you might see. But there's such a richness of material here and we've barely touched on it, or used it so lightly that it is meaningless.

Stalag 17 presents some conundrums to me as a game developer, questions I'm going to keep thinking about: Can we make a game in which we control a character who we dislike but can come to understand and maybe have a little grudging respect for?² Can we explore the complexities of interpersonal interaction and make it interesting and fun -- even if that means it's to a different market than our usual hardcore fans?

¹It's interesting to note that this movie was the basis for the later television series Hogan's Heroes, and we can definitely see that in the juxtaposition of some humor with the more common concerns of captured soldiers, food, adequate shelter, and also the escapes and escape attempts (when something is really on the line). Of course, there's also Sargent Shulz.
²Know any? I'm interested to hear about games that do this, especially if it was intentional.

Posted by Brett Douville at 04:44 PM | Comments (0)

April 01, 2005

Discussion: Einstein's Dreams

Einstein's Dreams

Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams is not a novel, even though that is its subtitle. It is more a collection of sometimes philosophical, sometimes romantic, always thought-provoking meditations on the nature of time, mildly wrapped in the idea that these are things that Einstein himself was dreaming of when he wrote his seminal paper way back in 1905. There is so little of this part (a few pages at beginning, midpoint, and end) that Einstein hardly figures into it at all. It might as well be called Lightman's Dreams though I suspect that would have sold fewer copies.

In any case, in its form it highly resembles an Italo Calvino 'novel' such as Invisible Cities¹, a group of thematically connected thoughts in the forms of chapters. Although the idea of Einstein having these thoughts gives it a frame to hang on, the little vignettes about time are the great reason for its being.

Of the books I've read lately, this one is the most structured like a videogame. You can certainly think of each concept as a level, for example, but an understanding of time being your ultimate quest, perhaps. Time is a thread through this book, and each chapter a knot in it.

I can just see the levels now: Road of Time, City Where Time Sleeps, The Shifting Sands of Time, Time Is An Arrow. (Hrm. I wonder if those Prince of Persia guys read this book.)

It's a short book. I'd probably read it again if I were doing a game with a clear central theme, just to get my brain turning on how to deal with variations on a theme. An acquaintance who has recently completed his very excellent game, Psychonauts² used to fill up notebooks with ideas that all surrounded the stuff he was doing, just brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming. This book seems like that sort of thing -- a group of ideas that came up out of a brainstorm, then polished into a bunch of wonderful little gems.

We did something like that near the end of Star Wars: Republic Commando, a brainstorm that is. We got everyone on the team, including our test team, and dragged them off to a space we rented somewhere offsite and picked everyone's brains for hours. I was one of the moderators (we had four groups, and we wanted to make sure everyone was communicating and that we got the info back together to present to the larger group after, hence moderators). It was great. There were some wonderful ideas that came out of that -- but mostly, the benefit was how much it re-energized the team, made them go that little extra mile for the last months of the project. We tried to focus people on things we could achieve in the final months of the project, polish stuff, areas that were really deficient -- but we didn't shoot them down over stuff that wasn't really able to be fit in scope.

I think one of the things that came out of that was the "communication" between enemies -- in an attempt to make the Trandoshan mercenaries seem a little smarter. There are times where it really works³, and they really seem a little smarter.

Anyway, we've gone a bit far afield from the original topic. But what I'm getting at is that just letting your mind flow and make associations can come up with some good stuff. This book is a great illustration of that, or at least, I imagine it is. Any game developers out there do this?

¹I use the term 'novel' loosely because Calvino bends it so much, which is a huge amount of his charm.
²Yes. I am doing the web equivalent of name-dropping.
³Which, emergent gameplay, god, the number of blog entries one could write about that.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:05 PM | Comments (6)