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October 18, 2006

Le jeu, c'est moi!

Not too long ago I was watching an Ingmar Bergman film, puzzling at the meaning underlying the story, trying to understand what it was that he was really getting at. As it turned out, certain characters in the film stood in for parts of the psyche, somewhat related to id, ego, and superego, though not directly. The moment I understood this was an epiphany, that piercing of the veil to let a little truth in, and it was heady, made more heady, in fact, because I felt such a strong recognition of myself in the mental life that the film represented.

I felt an amazing kinship with Bergman in that moment, knowing what a personal filmmaker he is, knowing that he may have been trying to represent aspects of himself.

It recalled for me a statement by Gustav Flaubert, who said of his famous heroine, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi". Now, there are any number of ways to interpret that statement -- that the book is him, that the character is him, that the forces which give rise to a book and character like Emma Bovary are what give rise to an author like Flaubert. In most ways of interpreting his statement, however, it's clear that Madame Bovary is an immensely personal work, one that only Flaubert could have envisioned and executed.

Finally, I recently read the following bit in prep by Curtis Sittenfeld¹:

I have always found the times when another person recognizes you to be strangely sad; I suspect the pathos of these moments is their rareness, the way they contrast with most daily encounters. That reminder that it can be different, that you need not go through your life unknown but that you probably still will -- that is the part that's almost unbearable.

That moment of recognition was something of what I felt for Bergman (and in myself, through his film); that recognition is something Flaubert perhaps sees in Emma (and therefore perhaps we can see in Flaubert). And it's a recognition I never see in games.

That's not to say I don't see parts of people in games -- Tim Schafer's desperately manic humor comes through in both his games and in person -- but it's rare that I can look at a game and feel like it's telling me anything more about myself, or that I can recognize myself in it.

I don't think it's an inherent limitation in the medium. I can sort of do a gedanken experiment where I envision an interactive experience along the lines of Grace and Trip in Façade which isn't all that different from the film I describe². In such a game, the characters might experience several scenes, rather than just the one, and their available mental states might be highly constrained according to the point of view the auteur is trying to put forward³. This doesn't seem like it need lead to some sort of fatalism -- after all, the film that Bergman constructed is only one of myriad possible scenarios between these characters, and perhaps the interactive experience involves finding new juxtapositions, experimenting with the potential relationship space that those characters represent.

I think a contributing factor to this lack of recognition is that we work in such a highly collaborative medium these days that single auteurship has pretty well gone out the window. When so many people work together in close collaboration, it's often to the benefit of the game, since so many shifting viewpoints will hopefully create fun for a wider audience4. But this is very counter to the experience in watching films by those directors we call auteurs (and naturally, entirely different from reading a book) -- directors who chose collaborators who were able to work within their framework.

In terms of the fun gaming experience, though, maybe the best we can hope most of the time for is a game which uniquely caters to one's own sense of fun -- one to which we respond, "That's my fun!" rather than "That's me!" It's a small mirror, to be sure, but a mirror nonetheless, and I'll keep holding out for the bigger ones, that reflect more of us.

¹Though I enjoyed the book, I'm not in complete agreement that it was one of the most notable books of last year. It seemed a little, well, chick-litty to me. Which yes, is an admission that I can enjoy certain forms of chick-lit, I suppose. But I'm man enough to admit that without feeling threatened. ;) That said, a quote like the one that follows above is sometimes enough for me, though the density of such quotes was pretty low here. I feel like I could jot down passages from just about any random page in Saramago. (back)
²Oh dear, I've done it now, I've painted myself into a corner where I must reveal the film, and therefore perhaps reveal a bit of my psyche. In any case, the film was Bergman's Cries and Whispers, a totally great film. Wow. Anyway, psyche exposed, let's now continue. (back)
³With all due respect to the makers of Façade, it doesn't feel like this level of authorship is at work here -- and in fact, that might work counter to the goals of the exercise, or simply be a side effect of the limitations that they have, in terms of a character's sublety of emotion. (back)
4Which is a great reason to diversify our industry; wider inputs probably mean a wider audience. Suits take note, if you can find a way to incorporate a more diverse team, you will likely sell more units. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:12 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2006

Something that rang a bell

I know, I know, two posts in as many days. No doubt I am spoiling my readership. How are you, my reader?

Anyway, I've been thinking again about the whole marketing push whereby Sony declares the PS3 to be a computer (rather than a gaming device). It has been gnawing at me for awhile, and I couldn't really figure out why.

Then it came to me. Just like other claims Sony made about the PS2, this one I've heard before. You see, while describing the PS3 (or for that matter, the PS2) as a computer doesn't make much nevermind to you or me the consumer, since we'll basically play games on it and nothing else, the EU makes a useful distinction, to the tune of a 2.2% duty on game consoles.

Now, granted, 2.2% on any individual unit isn't a lot -- it's about $12 in the States for the "high-end" PS3, give or take. On the other hand, if you multiply that by a few million units, it starts to add up -- and in fact, there have been around 40 million PS2 units shipped to Europe over the course of the console's cycle. Let's say that adds up to around $4 per console over the cycle on average (the PS2 being quite cheaper than the PS3); 160 million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, even for a big corporation like Sony.

I was thinking a little bit about this recently because of some of Mark Rein's comments about Intel -- basically, he claimed that Intel, by using integrated chipsets incapable of running higher end graphics, exactly the kinds of high-end capability that the Unreal 3 engine depend upon.

The differences are clear, and were essential to the EU last time around: when someone buys a PS3, they're buying it to play games, so the tariff is justified. In the case of Intel, when someone buys a PC, they are most likely not buying it to play games (and certainly not the high-end games such as Epic provides) but to fulfill some generic function (probably business-oriented).

Basically, I think that in both cases, the companies are doing the right thing for their bottom lines -- Sony wins if they fight the tariff, because they charge the same price either way, and Intel wins because they can afford to shave some of their profit margin to compete against AMD in the wholesale market. This leaves me thinking that Sony is basically trying to market their way out of paying a tax, that Intel is just doing the smart thing for their market, and that Mark Rein is... well, kind of not focusing on the right things.

Honestly, I don't think that most people who buy a PC with an integrated chip are going to want to play an Unreal Engine-licensed game. Those who want to play high-end games are going to continue to pay for high-end cards -- they will buy a PC for the flexibility it provides to their home in general (Internet browsing, printing, word processing, their home finances, whatever) and buy the card if they want to play games. Everyone who owns a PC is a potential customer for Epic only in the sense that they own a PC -- not because they have, or will ever have, much interest in playing Unreal games. My folks, my grandmother, my sisters -- these are people who might be interested in games, but just not those sorts of games, and these are exactly the folks who would have an integrated chipset.

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:47 AM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2006

Irregular Feature: Stuff I've Been Playing

Games Finished¹

Tomb Raider: Legend, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves

Games Played

Titan Quest (also bought), Evil Genius (demo), ElectroPlankton (also bought)

Games Bought

Okami, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls

So, yeah, been a while. Sorry about that. I've got a few things coming down the pike, so keep an eye on this space for future posts.

It's actually been a busy month or two in which I managed to play a few games, primarily of the action-adventure stripe, broadly speaking.

I mentioned some months ago on the Evil Avatar podcast that I had been playing Tomb Raider: Legend; it definitely seemed like a very refined, polished, Lara experience. Comparing it to older games in the genre, I realized how much this genre refinement addresses simply making it easier and or prettier to do things that were annoying in the past.

The biggest gameplay improvement here is in lining up jumps; old-school games like Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine required you to perfectly line up your jumps and ladder-climbing, which was irritating at best. The latest incarnation of Tomb Raider allows a free-form jumping experience that goes further and adds more forgiveness to badly placed jumps. In other words, if you miss the jump but are close, Lara will grab on and give you the opportunity to recover by pressing the Y button. This is a nice addition -- turning the annoyance of death and replay into an opportunity for agency -- but I'd love to see it go further. Lara is quick-thinking and agile; giving players the opportunity to stay alive in a variety of ways as long as they keep doing something, that's what I'm after. Make death a thing of the past, as long as the player does something appropriate -- whether that's throwing out a hand to catch a niche, or shooting the grapple hook above the ledge she's seeking to grab. My hope is that this would turn what is a false agency that merely eliminates an annoyance into a potentially meaningful choice -- perhaps missing and grappling gives you an angle on an enemy that would have been impossible otherwise, or causes the AI to peer over the ledge, allowing Lara's lovely legs to sweep up, encircle his neck and snap it.

Another refinement came in the form of inventory management. In the older games, managing inventory for things like health packs and weaponry was flawed -- it involved pausing the game to pop up an interface, and navigating this interface to find the thing you wanted, and then applying it, a sequence of three or four button presses². In TR:L, this is whittled away to a single button press on the D-pad, and there's no management -- Lara can hold three of them, and use them at any time, picking up more as she goes along. Less distracting, no need to interrupt play or the rhythm of a fire-fight, it's a win all around. If games today are shorter, but leave out some of this useless fiddling, that's a big win in my book.

I know that the idea of going back and finishing a sub-par game from years ago probably seems a little nuts. In this case, I was talking with one of the original designers via IM³, when I said that I wouldn't mind playing another similar game in the near future, if I could think of one. I joked that maybe I should go back and finish his game (I had never played any of the levels he designed, which occur late in the game), and over the next couple of days I did.

It was a bit of a perilous experience. The game's technology had aged quite poorly4, which was unsurprising, considering that the technology was pretty poor when it debuted. The art was quite below today's standards, but this didn't bother me a bit; comparing it to current games was meaningless, and even thinking about what it might have looked like compared with other games of its time was pretty pointless. The art more or less faded into the background. Certain macro-design issues were difficult to comprehend -- the inability to turn Indy around quickly (another thing that later games have improved on); a poison mechanic which wouldn't go away over time; the inability to move Indy while he was delivering such cinematic, mission-critical lines as "I don't think that will work". On the macro level, the design could have been significantly improved; the combat, in particular, had aged extremely poorly.

What stood out in the last few levels I hadn't played was the level design, in particular Mëroë and the Aetherium. Mëroë was everything I could possibly want in archaelogical exploration: labyrinthine tunnels that wound beneath the surface of the sand, connecting in "real" but still surprising ways. Though there was some combat, it was limited and really only a bit of a spice to what was mostly about puzzles and exploring; in essence, it was very similar to the movies in this way. The interior of the Infernal Machine was great in this way too -- not lots of combat, but interesting puzzles and good exploration that all tied together really nicely.

And then, there was the Aetherium, the final level, which did something few games manage to do well -- to take a 3D experience and make it do strange things, in this case, by bending "reality" to create passageways where passageways should not have been, due to intersecting other geometry in an Escher-like way. This is something I've always expected more in games, particularly in certain licenses, especially superheroes and anime. Combat in comic books and cartoons doesn't obey physical laws -- it obeys dramatic ones. When enemies or heroes are knocked back, they are thrown through what looks like a really big space -- even if it's only a 20' by 20' room -- without showing lots of detail of the room other than color and a lot of motion lines. I've seen this a lot lately on Teen Titans, which I watch with my sons -- there's a constant playfulness with reality, some of which is to show the emotional state of the characters, and a lot of which is to dramatize the combat to make it feel, well, "super". I'd love to see more of that in action games.

I see a little bit of that in the Sly Cooper series. Like the Ratchet and Clank folks, they've ignored animation advice to "not stretch bones", and as a result, they end up with characters whose animations better emphasize the characters themselves. Sly, of course, stretches longer when he jumps, but I think there's also some stretching going on in Murray when he bounces, and of course, Bentley's turtle nature virtually requires stretched necks and arms at times.

It's a pity that I came away from the last in this series feeling that they had made refinements that didn't meet my needs. In the first two, bottles were placed throughout the environment, which encouraged exploration -- those were removed here. Exploration in platformers is often good, because it gives you an opportunity to improve navigatoin skills you'll need throughout the game -- in Sly's case, this is his jumping and cane use, but it might just as well be Psychonauts' use of the acrobatic skills of Raz. There's also a 'cool factor' of being able to use these skills to get to places in a level you might never expect, such as the top of a very high tower. With the variety of new characters and skills available, I would have loved to have kept this element, if only to have exploration-based ways of improving my skills with these new characters.

The further refinement to take the place of these were 'challenges'; accessible from the main menu, you could return to certain sections of the game and repeat them, often to beat a time or a specific scoring metric (taking very little damage, for example). Unfortunately, these were essentially removed from the normal play of the game, and didn't encourage things I enjoyed. I played several of them, but only enough to know that I won't be going back now that I've completed the main storyline.

So, I guess in the end you need to be very careful where you refine. Refinement that eliminates annoyance or enhances agency? Good. Refinement that eliminates features which encourage exploration and skill-building, bad.

Well, now that I've posted again for the first time in a while, I hope to have a few more posts5 in the near future -- it's not for lack of thoughts, just prioritization of time, and now Okami and Zelda are beckoning... Cheers.

¹This irregular feature is completely stolen from the Believer column of a similar name by Nick Hornsby; I may even do a "Stuff I've Been Reading" column. We'll see. (back)
²Another implementation, which was visually cleaner than Indy's but no less distracting, was the inventory management of Metal Gear Solid.(back)
³Tim Longo, who was designer or director on each of my own three shipped games, is now at Crystal Dynamics, new home of Tomb Raider; I was giving him my thoughts on the game and the genre. (back)
4In particular, there was an assert which would trigger frequently; eventually, I realized that this was due to how much faster PCs are these days than when this was released, when a 233 MHz machine was pretty beefy. As it turns out, (back)
5Including one that discusses some elements from Castlevania... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:34 PM | Comments (3)