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June 30, 2005

Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of Solitude

I thought that I had lost my capacity for surprise while reading; it's rare indeed that a book takes me by surprise in its plot, and rarer still for a movie. But I had been reading for a good hundred pages of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude when the story made a dramatic right turn. I think my reading pace doubled when that happened, and possibly trebled. The novel I thought I had been reading, which was a slice-of-life piece about a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, his mother estranged from him and his father lost in his art, suddenly changed enormously into a story in which heroic powers were possible. I couldn't believe it, Lethem had hoodwinked me, with his first hundred pages. I was enormously surprised; sure, the title indicates the possibility, but the content of the novel up until then had led me to believe that the boy's fortress might be graffiti, or a friendship, or even just comic books, or some mix of three or four elements. And in a way they were, but there was this otherness embedded within the story.

When I originally wrote this post, I spent a good hour on it, and then accidentally closed the browser window -- a real hazard with Movable Type, I'm finding, and also with wikis¹. But I'm actually kind of glad I did, because thinking more on it, I think I've changed my thinking entirely.

The original post lamented how rare surprises are in games. But I've had a change of heart, now that my brain got working on the topic; part of it is that I've thought back on things that genuinely surprised me as a gamer, and it broadened out a lot beyond story. Here are the few surprises that occurred to me originally.

  • Story Surprise: The ending of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was not only sublime but amazingly beautiful and self-contained. I felt like I had been presented with a gleaming jewel in a way few game stories have ever been able to do. And it fit so perfectly within the context of the game that I couldn't do much more than sit in awe, looking at the TV, where I had been returned to the start menu. Brilliant.
  • Gameplay Surprise: I've rarely had such an amazing spark of surprise as I had when reaching the section where you get to control the ant-lions in Half-Life 2. The game was filled with interesting bits, but I pushed my chair back and stared in awe when I reached that section.
  • Gameplay/Story Surprise: Jamie recently commented on the bit in Paper Mario 2 where you become the boss you've just defeated, and you sit there looking at the screen, wondering what's gone wrong. The game managed to simultaneously deliver a satisfying sense of completion and tweak your nose at the same time. Brilliant.

But there are really so much more, and I feel privileged to be working in this industry right now. I read a lot of death knells about how games are just sequels and licenses these days. But I've been surprised by so much more in this last generation of titles that I think more of them are worth remarking:

  • Ico. I loved this game -- who would have thought that a game with basically the "save-the-princess" story would be so worthwhile?
  • Jak & Daxter introduced a continuously streaming world, with stunning vistas crossing the map. Who would have thought that a platformer, which could have simply stuck with the tried and true, would have done that so completely well?
  • Mario Kart DD finally came along and showed other Kart racing games what they were missing, delivering innovation where everyone else had simply imitated.
  • God of War actually presented a nice story/gameplay surprise -- when Kratos battles the many copies of himself to save his wife and child. Immensely satisfying.
  • Resident Evil made me realize that every good game design decision can have an equally compelling reason to be made the other way.
  • Spiderman 2 (a license and a sequel) delivered webslinging so fun that I would often come home after a long day crunching and just swing about for half an hour to unwind. I never expected that hypnosis.
  • Psychonauts portrayed a hugely winsome world -- and basically made me wish I had gone to summer camp, albeit a summer camp where I developed psychic powers.

There are other examples, too, such as SW: KotOR's story (I'm going on reputation here, but I've heard that there's a great story twist at the end), and I think SW: Republic Commando offered some interesting gameplay surprises to mainstream players (specifically, the maneuvers). Sly Cooper's twist on thief-platforming surprised me too.

So, I've come full circle. Although I'm very cautious about what the future begins -- the costs of next generation development worry me both as a developer and a gamer -- I feel like gaming still delivers more surprises than the other media I enjoy. And that's pretty great.

¹We use one at work and the number of times I've lost work borders on the ridiculous.

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:55 AM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2005

On Vacation

Hardly thinking about games at all. Well, maybe a little bit, but not about any games I'd be able to tell you about anyway. But mostly just relaxing the brain. I'll be posting again in a week's time.

Mario Golf, however, has been played quite a bit here, some with my brother-in-law, who has a healthy competitive instinct when it comes to golf particularly. Mario Golf helped my mini golf game, though -- beat him by two strokes, with just three over par!

Posted by Brett Douville at 03:53 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2005

Discussion: Network


When I watched William Holden walk out on Faye Dunaway, dismissing her character in Network as being raised by television and therefore like television, both in attractiveness and in faults, I had to stop and think a little bit about what it might mean to be raised by videogames¹.

Other than pundits calling our entertainment murder simulators, and politicians using it for a hot-button topic of interest to parents, I don't hear a lot of folks entering into reasonable discussions on the topic².

Games have been with us for a long time; videogames, obviously, less so. I read recently that baseball may be a lot older than we think it to be (indeed, dating back to 14th century France), and I'm aware of reading some evolutionary theory research years ago that suggests that play was part of what enabled our evolutionary ancestors to improve their chances of survival.

In other words, play might just have helped make us human.

Television and books and movies and other forms of entertainment (and yes, even enrichment) lack direct interactivity. Absolutely, we bring something to the experience -- our own experiences mash up together with the author/actors/director/what-have-you, and we make judgements and interpret the material based on all of that. But only games allow us to engage in "do-this, that-happens, do-that, this-other-happens" in a way that allows us to take part in directing the experience.

I've questioned before whether we can match in depth what other media can provide, based on the need for our audience to bring that to us. But aside from that concern, I start to wonder if playing more games could actually make us more human, not less, not more cut-off from others, but actually learning better skills and socialization.

Socialization? In a videogame? Absolutely. I watch my sons play Mario Kart, and I see them learning how to have fun even when the contest is unbalanced -- Jordan, who has not had nearly as much success in contests since the first time, nonetheless seems to have a blast playing. In the bomb battles, he often races to see how fast he can pile up 5 bombs; in the balloon battles, he's still having fun, even trash-talking his brother. (This is a kid who is four, and yet the other night told me over a rollicking game of Trouble that "Daddy, you're going to pay, my friend." That "my friend" just cracked me up.)

Another area that I see a lot of socialization between them is in negotiation and persuasion. Each has the modes and characters he prefers; naturally, these don't always intersect. Luc will try to use persuasion to get the mode he wants to play, often making concessions -- "okay, let's play bomb battle for three games and then we can switch to balloon battle for three" -- and this is really great to see. When it becomes intractable, as it will with the under-7 set, there's an external authority who can be called on to help arbitrate a settlement that's fair to both parties.

Finally, though Kart promotes competition, it can also promote teamwork. Recently I got a third controller so the three of us could battle together, and naturally, it was easy for me to defeat the kids. They could tell if I was letting them win, so instead, I opted for another tactic: I drove like crazy, and only throttled back my game a little bit, and told them that the only way to take me down was to work together. Pretty soon, they were working together and cheering one another on whenever they could take a piece of me -- enough so that I could throttle my game back even further and let them think they were beating me hands-down³, just by working together.

Internet play gets tricky -- I don't currently connect my consoles to the Internet, and even if I did, I wouldn't let the kids play online. Anonymous play tends to bring out the worst in people -- the language you hear in these games is extraordinarily vulgar, and it'll be a long time before I'm interested in letting my kids play in that environment; indeed, it's a significant turn-off for me, too. That said, I'd also love to see more negotiation in the hands of the players; one thing that was great about the sandlot baseball games was that kids who couldn't get along with others could be easily and effectively shunned out of play. There's a fair amount of that available in the PC shooters I've played online, with the ability to vote off players and automatically rebalance teams and things like that, but not all that much in the console world as yet. These are the sorts of things that should make the transition from the couch to the online world.

Finally, part of what makes games great is that games are a safe arena in which we can make meaningful choices and fail, seeing the results. We can experiment in a way that can be difficult or dangerous in life. We can experience things that we couldn't otherwise experience. In doing these things, I think we open up for ourselves the possibility that we can make meaningful choices in life -- after all, we've trained ourselves to do so.

A pastime that teaches our kids socialization and helps them feel freer to make meaningful choices? Sign me up.

¹It's a good movie, by the way, and not at all dated. I expected it to be, and was pleasantly surprised. It's still quite funny and really topical, especially with the recent development of "reality TV".
²Though I was heartened by my father's response, after I wrote an email out to my family about how I felt about my profession. (It was after Columbine, and I wanted to talk a little bit about my feelings about the issue after much was made in the national media about the Doom "connection.") He said that in his view, "if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, it's probably a duck" -- i.e. that ascribing some sort of causal power to something that walked and talked like a game was probably a little off-base.
³A note to friends with whom I've played Mario Kart before, don't think I've lost my edge. I can still blow the doors off of you. Often I give the kids a better shot at me by playing one-handed :)

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:35 PM | Comments (0)

June 05, 2005

Discussion: Sports books, sports games


Listening to Michael Chabon's Summerland, I felt like I finally got a glimpse at what sports games have never had for me. The book presents an unlikely young hero who puts together a nine from the four worlds and ends up having to save the Universe from the depravities of that Trickster, Coyote. Along the way, there's bits about father-son relationships, a sasquatch, giants, dwarves and fairies. It's an interesting book, told a bit unevenly (it draws on so many myths that the cohesion that exists between a single set of myths is kind of lost), but entertaining nonetheless and full of good lessons about baseball.

Simulated games for me have always missed the ball: they're caught up with stats and the current players and the licenses and the ball physics and all that, and they miss out on why we play them, why baseball remains our national pastime¹. Sports games don't tell stories, at least, not the ones I'm interested in. They don't teach lessons other than the practical lessons available from any simple playbook or a good announcer's patter.

Granted, teaching kids that there is value in a game which is largely about paying attention is probably best left to little leagues and summer leagues and sand lots, but I'll be damned if I have any interest whatsoever in playing a sports game where I'm moving around characters from real life.

Summerland presents a game or two with giants; I don't mean metaphorical giants like Joe Dimaggio or Ted Williams, but actual flesh-and-blood giants. They throw incredible fastballs from a hill which serves as a pitcher's mound, and there are miles between the plate and first. Their reach is enormous. They are easily angered.

Now that's a baseball game I'd like to play, something that makes me feel like I can play on that scale. That'd be heroic, and a story to tell.

Side note: I picked up Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour to try out with the youngsters. I'll let you know if it scratches this particular itch. I like golf, though I play infrequently, and I've never really been able to sustain interest in a golf sim past a hole or two. In fact, the most fun I ever had playing computer golf was with Sid Meier's Sim Golf, which is mostly just quirky humor and lots of just one more greatness.

¹Baseball went through a bit a slump there a few years back, but then Sosa and McGuire came out slugging and put it back to the forefront. Sure, it's a lot more about the hitting right now, but it's going to swing back the other way eventually.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:40 PM | Comments (0)

June 04, 2005

Discussion: Robert Mitchum

The Big Sleep Astro City: The Tarnished Angel

Robert Mitchum carried with him to every picture he ever made his own iconography; Mitchum was practically short-hand for every noir character you ever saw. He had one of those perfect voices which carry with it all the expectations you might have of its subject matter, the sort of voice you hear when you read Chandler or Hammett. He had the haunted look, with his hooded heavy eyelids, and his slightly unruly hair. His face could bespeak nonchalance, or explode suddenly in rage.

Looking over his filmography, I'm amazed; no wonder this guy was an icon, he had a film career spanning more than 50 years leading right up to the year he died. Admittedly, I've only seen a few of them, and I know a lot of them aren't particularly good, and The Big Sleep falls into both categories. But you can see in the list, year after year, those pictures which kept up the image, usually two or three pictures to a year.

Which brings us to Astro City, which has been going about enlarging the context of superheroes for years. I started reading the Astro City graphic novel compilations a few years ago when a friend at LucasArts pointed them out to me, and I own a few of them. Originally, I was attracted due to the great covers by Alex Ross, whose Marvels I had read years before.

That's all just a preamble though to telling you that Robert Mitchum's iconic role is brought once more to live by Busiek & co. in The Tarnished Angel, which presents the evolution of the character in the end-notes. Looking at the cover, I thought, "Hey, that guy looks like Robert Mitchum, but in chrome" and sure enough, that's more or less what he is. The character of Mitchum¹ is reimagined as Steeljack, a recently released convict who just wants to get out of sight for his remaining years, but can't. It's worth reading.

One of the interesting things about games these days is just how much they cost and, of course, the next generation is going to make that even worse. One of the things Hollywood has going for it is that casting agents take direction from producers and directors to fill a particular role -- in the 40s, 50s and 60s, if you were looking for someone to fill a film noir lead, you'd probably get someone like Mitchum².

With the next generation costing so much, and the visual differences in console generations probably slimming in the coming years, I wonder if there isn't going to start to be room for independent contractors who build digital actors to be our main characters, our heroes, our villains, whatever. The most cost-efficient way to do this would be to build characters who could be leveraged across several titles, and maybe even customized a bit to fill particular roles. It doesn't seem like a huge stretch to me to have "Far Cry guy" also be "Bond villain henchman #1" or "True Crime" guy or maybe even dress him up in clothes with no apparent gravitational constraints to fit into a Final Fantasy. It wouldn't take many titles to have enough animation for the digital actor to fill a number of roles, with custom animations added by the house who know him best, and can keep the characterization stable.

I could see this sort of service covering even a little more ground. Obviously, in the digital realm we can apply "make-up" a little faster and easier -- the digital equivalent of Mickey Rourke wouldn't be sitting for an hour in a make-up artist's chair every morning for Sin City. And an independent contractor could even consider establishing long-term contracts with voice actors to keep the character consistent as well. It could become one-stop shopping for your character needs, and help keep costs down.

Granted, there'll still be lots of games, I hope, that come up with wacky characters that can't really see frequent use. There aren't too many characters from Psychonauts who would look right in anything but the game-equivalent of a David Lynch film. That said, I could imagine characters from Tim's earlier games getting another day in the sun, even if not in a sequel. Ben Throttle as the wheelman in a heist game? I could buy that.

¹If you don't feel like you have a handle on the sort of guy Mitchum was, I can thoroughly recommend Ebert's interviews with him. They're terrific, and the sort of interview you just can't find anymore in Hollywood, which has gone and packaged up all of its stars into neat little packages. Also, I enjoyed Mitchum in Out of the Past a few years back, which was a noir film I got to see on the big screen courtesy of the now-vanished Lark Theater in Larkspur, CA.
²With the rare exception of getting Fred MacMurray. If you've never seen Double Indemnity, you should.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:50 AM | Comments (5)