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October 31, 2005

Homicide and Thoughts about Episodic Content

Homicide: The Movie Homicide Season 7 Homicide Season 6

More than any other show, the Barry Levinson police procedural Homicide: Life on the Street made me wish I was a homicide detective, which is saying something. I've been watching cop shows nearly my whole life; the first one I can remember really getting into was Hill Street Blues, but that even postdates a fascination with earlier shows with a detective element, like Quincy, M.D. and The Rockford Files.

Now, the crazy thing is that I've no actual interest in most of the actual work having to do with being a Homicide detective, chasing down leads, investigating gory death scenes, seeing names in red and black on "the board". About the only thing I'd really like to know if I was any good at is putting suspects in "the box".

No, what really interested me about Homicide was the amount of time the detectives spent talking about what you could call "life issues": birth, death, love, hate, marriage, divorce, children, parents, justice, compassion, humility. Oh, and lots of murder, and the reasons why people murder, and the kinds of people who murder. It didn't treat crime romantically, it treated it frankly.

Ah, and the characters, paired off beautifully: the morally black-and-white Pembleton with the relativist Bayliss, conspiracy nut Munch with ordinary joe Bolander, soulful Lewis with "meatball" Crosetti, romantic Felton with pragmatist Howard.

Homicide, sweet Homicide. Over the last couple of years I've watched all seven seasons and the conclusive television movie that tied off the remaining loose ends. And when I finished it, I wanted to turn right around and start over.

I keep hearing about episodic content in games coming along the pike one of these days. In fact, putting "episodic content" and video games together into Google nets you around 13,000 hits, which isn't Halo numbers, but it's a start.

I used to think it was a little bit crazy, I admit; after all, a reasonable segment of our market largely won't bother with a game if they can rent it. On the other hand, every sale of a used game and every GameFly or Blockbuster rental is a lost bit of revenue to the industry; I hear that even Best Buy is getting into the act. With development costs for AAA titles skyrocketing, I think prices will rise a bit (as I've started to notice for next-gen), and these alternative channels will swell, leaving fewer consumers actually buying that first copy of the product that we actually make money on.

So it seems like a great way to go is episodic content through Steam-like services, where downloads and an active network connection work both ends of this problem. Download permits the developer to sell for less and make the same revenue (since the cost of goods is lower), and the active network connection limits the license to one user (or more accurately, one computer). There will be backlash, sure, but there were plenty of people signed up for Steam getting their Counterstrike: Source on before Half-Life 2 was available -- I think the right carrots will make it a viable approach.

There's a lot more involved in this issue, though. You can't really liken it to television, though that's the comparison I see every single time it's mentioned. It's not like television. Television is free; or at least, it was when episodic content arose on it. Even paying for it, you are paying for a staggering array of choices, something for everyone. Spend ten bucks a month on HBO and you're getting more than four episodes of The Sopranos, you're also getting Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and a bunch of movies, and probably some shows I'm not hip enough to know about but which are doubtless pretty decent. And it's pretty staggering to think about how many hours of content your fifty bucks for basic cable gets you -- granted, it has additional subsidies in the form of advertising, but if you use TiVo, you're basically getting far more than you could ever watch without commercial interruption.

MMOs are more like episodic content in this regard; at the very least, they are simply enormous amounts of content, which justifies to a degree their monthly fees. I think I could reasonably argue that my $15/month for WoW could go for at least four different characters who would rarely encounter the same content, at least up until a certain level.

Thus, MMOs are already very close to episodic content, though it's driven by my time alone. This is appealing, much as DVD collections of my favorite shows are appealing: I don't really see much point in watching television "live" anymore -- I'll just wait until the boxed set comes out. If the shows are good enough, they'll get put on DVD eventually, and I can watch them at my own pace, much like I'd play an MMO. These days, it seems like the last season gets put out a week or two before the next one starts. I imagine I could fill my Netflix queue just with those -- in fact, about 15% of my queue is shows right now, and that's before Deadwood Season Two or Six Feet Under Season Five is out.

Lately I've been playing Shadow of the Colossus, and playing it as if it were a series of episodes. Since I've been enjoying it tremendously (expect a blog post at some point), I've been attempting to stretch out the experience, slaying no more than a single Colossus per day.

I wonder if an episodic release for this game might have worked, if putting a couple of Colossi into each digital release might have generated more sales overall than whatever it's getting¹. While I certainly would have been interested in it, waiting impatiently for the next episode, it seems unlikely at this point that it would have been any more lucrative than the traditional channel. I can only hope that with more consoles connected to broadband in the next few years, there might be some channel to push this stuff through.

What's most appealing to me about episodic content, though, is the opportunity to find that new retail channel, which is where we differ so strongly from these other media. Television has syndication for its shows, and movies have DVD and video². Most games have a couple of weeks on the shelves and then their selling window is gone more or less forever. Episodic content, however, is a more persistent revenue stream that opens up the opportunity to deliver a premium package later on, with the first six or twelve episodes on a single CD or set of CDs. You can play it as it comes out now... or you can wait, pay a bit more for the nice collection, and play a whole bunch of them at once. There's a model which exactly parallels this and it's been kicked around the block for quite a while -- the serial novels such as Charles Dickens wrote³.

So, I guess it'll be pretty interesting to see what happens with the Steam channel, with the SiN episodes I've read a little bit about coming through there, and Aftermath and whatever other Half-Life 2 content they generate. It's not quite the same as HBO, since I'll be paying a fair penny for a relatively small amount of entertainment, but it's certainly a start.

¹Naturally, I hope it's getting quite a lot. Unfortunately, I suspect it's closer to Psychonauts numbers than, say, Halo numbers. Which is a shame, because I've experienced emotions playing this game that I've never experienced playing other games.(back)
²It's interesting to note, however, that television shows generally only hit syndication after they've passed something akin to a quality bar -- 150 or 200 shows -- whereas even Little Nicky got a DVD release. (back)
³And of course, Dickens wasn't the only one. But Dickens is a good place to take a look if you're interested in what sorts of tricks need to be employed to make episodic content work. One of them is, of course, the cliffhanger. Dickens didn't write the stories where someone was left literally hanging from a cliff, but he did have a good sense of where to end a chapter so that his audience would visit the newstand the following Saturday. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:20 PM | Comments (2)

October 24, 2005

The Tragic Hero

The House of Mirth God of War

Note: spoilers ahead!

Earlier this year I listened to House of Mirth on my way to and from work. It chronicles the fall of its heroine, Lily Bart, from the social scene of New York at the turn of the century.

Lily is getting to be of an age where she risks becoming an old maid -- and without a rich husband nor means of her own, she also risks social ostracism. She has been raised in a such a way as to prepare her for the life of high society, bred to its charms and its mannerisms, with every expectation that her face and figure would win her a husband.

The book's central conflict is between Lily's heart and the heartlessness she would need to stay in society. Though stacked in debts racked up playing bridge, she pretends ignorance of gambling to gain the favor of a rich, if morally uptight, gentleman, only to lose it when she recklessly spends time with the man we believe she truly loves, Lawrence Selden. In an attempt to gain enough money to buy time, she asks a rich man to invest her interests for her -- only to later learn that he has been merely giving her money of his own, and expects to be repaid in ways she'd rather not. She spurns a suitor due to her distaste for how mercenary he is¹.

In a lot of ways, Lily is playing a game, but a game she cannot win due to her character; what we take as something close to moral strengths are weaknesses in the field she plays. The stakes are high, and grow higher the longer she tarries at the game -- mounting debts, the slow decline of her good looks, the gathering of enemies amongst the society ladies whose ranks she seeks to join. The end is a fitting one -- to one who can't be ruthless enough to play the game by the rules, and to play to win, there is only death. It gives the story an incredible punch, to have Selden arrive on her doorstep the morning after her (admittedly ambiguous) suicide; he came seeking to propose marriage, and instead finds her beauty coldly preserved in death.

When I was playing God of War, I came to believe that death might have been an honorable end for the hero. The only prize he sought from the gods was denied him -- that of forgetting the horror he had wrought against his wife and child. Had he descended to Hades and thrown himself in the River Lethe² rather than ascending to Godhood, the story would have tied itself up in a rather more interesting way. It would have maintained the questions of destiny and fate, and provided the hero with a different out in choosing oblivion over a lifetime of painful reminiscence. It would also have been in better keeping with Greek stories -- such as that of Oedipus, who puts out his own eyes when he learns what he has done. Even Achilles, the greatest hero of his time, died in battle to assure his immortality in verse. Raising a mortal to the status of a God wasn't a common aspect of the mythology; but then, neither was slaying one.

I've been looking for another game to treat its protagonist in this way, much like Nameless was at the end of Planescape: Torment, choosing eternal, meaningless, punishing battle for his sins.

It's not that God of War offers a bad ending -- far from it, it's very fitting. But since we distance ourselves from the characters we control, we should offer those characters the full range of experience, so that players can enjoy a broader range of stories. I wonder if they even considered that end for him -- perhaps they could have retooled that whole "fighting-your-way-out-of-Hell" into a "slay as many minions of Hades as you can on the way to the River Lethe". A level where the goal is the death of the character to cleanse him of his sins... it's interesting, anyway.

Anyway, no conclusions to these thoughts (which is why it's taken me so long to post about it, I've decided to post and conclusions be damned!), but to say that given the breadth of experiences we can give our players through these characters, why exclude the full breadth of human experience. Is it really just too much of a bummer to witness a character's mortality, no matter how justified?

¹This particular bit is a little distasteful in this day and age -- the character in question, Simon Rosedale, is Jewish, and faces a steep climb into society because of it. He seeks Lily's hand purely as a way of securing his claim to high society. The sentiments against Jews may have been appropriate to New York society of the turn of the century, but I squirmed through these sections. (back)
²River of Forgetfulness -- save yourself a trip to google or the Wikipedia. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:04 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2005

What? We're over a Mountain!

Star Wars: Starfighter Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter

I learned this evening that Charlie Rocket, who voiced one of the main characters in my first two games, committed suicide a little over a week ago at his home in Connecticut.

As the voice of Nym, Mr. Rocket completely brought that character to life for me. Until we received the voice recordings, Nym was a pirate captain without a soul, a character on whom we had hung a bit of a story, who had been the focus of some cutscene work.

But having the voice, this boisterous, brash, guttural boom suddenly coming out of the speakers at me really brought the character home. Nym was suddenly alive in a way that Rhys Dallows and Vana Sage never were. Even Adi Gallia, who had actually been a character in Episode 1 (albeit briefly), never felt as real to me as Nym did. And the voice was a huge part of that.

I guess part of it was that he was a main character in my first game; in fact, it was the first game for at least a few folks on the team. I had helped invent the character near the beginning of the project -- a pirate captain with a whole set of missions as a bit of an anti-hero -- and he had later been better incorporated into the storyline when we added a proper writer to the project¹.

The title of this post refers to something of a weird project battle cry, taken from one of the voice lines Rocket had done. I don't think the direction on that particular line had been all that clear, and it came out a little confused -- we ended up pulling the line from the shipping product and refactoring the mission in which it appeared.

But from that point on, whenever we needed a little comic relief, or when the pressure of being the company's first PS2 game was a little high, or when we were all just a little confused ourselves, someone would yell out the line in their best befuddled Nym impression. It was good for a laugh every time, a little letting off of steam. It continued to be in the years afterwards, and I'll occasionally get it in the odd instant message from an old teammate to this day.

I never met him, but he touched my life in a small way. I'm saddened by his passing.

¹Haden Blackman, still at LucasArts. Haden came back and helped us out for JSF as well, before he went off and got so super-involved with that MMO in a galaxy far, far away. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:29 PM | Comments (1)

October 12, 2005

The Auteur

The Fool's Errand

Back in April or so, I went back and played through¹ The Fool's Errand, a game I had played on the Macintosh years and years ago, based on an article I had found on the fine website Tea Leaves. There isn't alot to say about the game that Tea Leaves hasn't said already, so I both commend them and recommend their article. Good reading.

Cliff Johnson is that relatively rare beast in gaming today, the lone auteur -- in our very collaborative development medium, he has largely worked on his puzzle games alone. And he has another Fool's game coming out soon, so you fans should head on over to his site to check it out, as well as a couple of other games by him you might have missed.

Not too long ago I posted an idea I had for making games more accessible to build by smaller teams. I have others, but that's a start. I was, of course, thinking primarily of games more or less as I play them now -- these big, triple-A titles with tons of assets and thousands and thousands of man-hours of work behind them.

There is, of course, another way. One other great area where games can still have single auteurs, and have something meaningful to offer, is in Interactive Fiction. This year's Interactive Fiction Competition has more than 30 games to give a try. There are probably very few people with time enough to play them all -- the voting closes in a little under a month -- but I'm willing to give a few of them a try. You can register on the site and even have it generate a random ordering of the games for you, so you don't need to feel like only the first few are getting a shot.

So, that's what I'll be doing in the near term, game-wise. In a time when I've been getting a little disillusioned by what the mainstream has to offer us as far as gaming experiences go, I'm willing to go back to where I started, in a crystal cavern. Because these days, the gaming mainstream often feels like the real maze of twisty little passages.

All alike.

¹It's worth noting that at the time, I only had 30 days in which to beat the game, or have it be lost to me forever. I used a walkthrough mostly at the end -- those final puzzles are far beyond my ability to do them quickly. Good stuff, though. Apparently the Windows emulator for Mac OS has been extended to run for the next 14 months or so, free of charge, so feel free to give it a whirl, you'll have more time with it than I did. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:46 PM | Comments (1)

Man, the Spam

I've not been blogging due to a cold and then some travel. So's you know.

Anyway, while I was away this past weekend I got seriously spammed. I cleared all that out before I headed out again on Monday (business travel this time) and got thoroughly re-spammed.

Ugh. There are times when I hate the Internet.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:25 PM | Comments (0)

October 01, 2005

Sacrifice: God of War

God of War

Note: this discussion contains plot spoilers not only of the game in question but of a few Ancient Greek plays.

It's almost unheard of that I get halfway through a game¹ and feel the tug of moral qualms countermanding my desire to see it through. I had just such a moment in SCEA's God of War, which I finished shortly after completing Psychonauts a few months back.

I had reached the point in the game where Kratos was encountering the Challenges of the Gods inside of Pandora's Temple. The game had shown me all kinds of savagery -- ripping undead sailors in half, tearing harpies limb from limb, driving my blades into the throats of countless minotaurs -- but I was completely caught off guard when it became clear that Kratos had to make a human sacrifice to continue. I had come to a point where the Gods demanded sacrifice, and that sacrifice was available to me -- a man standing in a cage, at first certain that I had come to rescue him, but soon realizing otherwise, and screaming for my mercy. And ahead... the flames.

Now, I'm not particularly squeamish, but this was a bit much even for me. I paused the game, and I put down the controller, and I stood up from the couch and walked around for a bit. Granted, these were mere pixels and polygons, but that wasn't enough to make me able to overcome my qualms. After all, I was being asked to push a man (albeit a virtual man) helplessly into jetting flames.

It was the tensest moment in the game for me. I had seen scenes of immense beauty, such as the sewer entrance masked by the enormous statue of Athena with its bridge constructed from her sword. Kratos had been bathed in the light of the Gods and granted enormous powers. All that remained was this last shred of his humanity, and soon he would defeat a God.

It was at this point I was grateful for the third-person perspective in games. I could disassociate myself from the horrors that Kratos performed, since they grew from his character, and not from mine. The story was already laid, had already unfolded, had already occurred -- I was just experiencing it.

Because you see, the people of Ancient Greece were almost completely alien to our own sense of morality; they treasured might and strength and honor where many of us believe in self-sacrifice and helping others². Cronus, Zeus' father, attempts to maintain his throne by eating his own children, and Zeus attains his throne by cutting open his father's stomach to retrieve his siblings. And as terrible as their myths were, their entertainments contained similar themes: Euripides' The Bacchae and Medea offer denouements where mothers destroy their children. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus puts out his own eyes. These are brutal events, tragic events, and they flow from the savage, passionate characters who personified the human condition for the Greeks³.

Thinking these things, I came to the conclusion that I could continue to participate in the story, to be the agent that moved the story forward, to participate in the myth just as I had when I read The Bacchae. I could see Kratos not as an extension of myself, but as his own character. While I controlled his moment to moment action, the elements of his story were not mine to take moral responsibility for -- they were his own destiny.

And so, I picked the controller back up and continued. I guided Kratos through a sacrifice of a human being to attain his destiny.

For the most part, I'm glad I did. The story structure of the game was remarkably well-done, with wonderful reversals and a brilliant return to a visual element which I had found stunningly beautiful when I encountered it. In entering the sewers of Athens4, I had crossed an enormous sword into the body of the statue of Athena which held it -- and returned later to wield that sword, having been enlarged by the power of Pandora's Box.

I have a few quibbles, of course: for example, the time Kratos spends in Hell was such a departure from the rest of the game that it felt like I myself was in hell, which brought me closer to the character but not in a good way. And whenever I had to cross a narrow beam or tightrope of some kind, I felt decidedly unheroic -- here Kratos is, up against a God, and yet he teeters and frequently dies whenever walking across something less than a foot wide. This was particularly disconcerting after having finished Psychonauts, where our young hero regularly traipses up and down tightropes without missing a beat or even really slowing down.

But for the most part, Kratos' tale was a remarkable one, and it helped to elevate the straightforward (if highly polished) beat-'em-up play that was the bulk of the game.

A game that makes me stop and consider whether I want to continue due to moral questions is one that I feel I can recommend.

¹... or a film or a book. It happens, but it's exceedingly rare. Usually once I've made the investment, I feel bound to continue. I look at all the games on my shelf that I've started and not finished, and it's usually because something else comes along, not because I gave up on a game. (back)
²For those who are interested in a philosophical assessment of how we got from one to the other, I can recommend Friedrich Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals. Be warned, however, because Nietzsche's analysis is somewhat unflattering of Christianity's moral framework, at least in terms of its origins. (back)
³It's worth noting that Shakespeare also involves a fair amount of brutality, especially in a play like Titus Andronicus but even in tales like The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. It's interesting to me that the most revered writer in English uses his tragedies to externalize the human condition, just as he often does in his comedies, this may be something you see in a post someday. (back)
4Must every game have sewers? I'm fairly certain that sewers were not an invention of the Greeks, though they did have aqueducts to bring their water down from the mountains. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:23 AM | Comments (4)