September 2, 2009
Nobody's Talking About Polygons Here
The thing I like best about Seth Schiesel's NYT piece on The Beatles: Rock Band is that it's entirely about the game's cultural impact, the way it fits into our world. There's a bit about the play mechanic, too, for those unfamiliar with Rock Band. But nothing about the technical dimensions of the game—not the barest mention of framerate or polygon count or HDR lighting effects or clever combo systems or... ahhh.
I know this isn't unique, and game criticism has been getting a lot better in the past few years. But that the piece could hinge on this claim—
By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience.
In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made.
—seems like a watershed to me. Even if he's wrong, I love the fact that Seth Schiesel can make that claim and then spend the rest of the piece trying to back it up.
August 15, 2009
"While My Guitar Gently Beeps"
If you were planning on not reading this week's NYT Mag cover story because it's, um, about Guitar Hero, reconsider. It's really good. And the photo at top is mesmerizing. (And whoever came up with the headline, I salute you.)
August 5, 2009
You Won't Find These on Threadless
Oh man, how much do I love these arcade boot-screen t-shirts?
Reminds me a bit of Gerhard Richter's stained-glass pixels. Or maybe it's the other way around.
August 4, 2009
The geniuses over at OverClocked ReMix have given FFIV the full OCReMix treatment -- an entire album of Final Fantasy songs, re-imagined in something other than midi. My first love, the "Red Wings Theme," has been transformed into "Full of Courage." (Incidentally, I think "Full of Courage" is a very valiant attempt, but it sadly neglects the song's longing in favor of its bombast; it's like John Williams' take on Nobuo Uematsu.)
The album's available as a free download, natch. Let me say it again: I LOVE the Internet.
July 6, 2009
Gratuitous Space Battles
Seems like the essence of a good video game is (sometimes) figuring out what a player really wants to see on the screen, and then engineering a system to conjure up that screen as reliably as possible.
I feel that the designers of Gratuitous Space Battles have done exactly this.
June 8, 2009
SimCity... Actually a Terrible Simulation
The blog Human Transit outlines the ways in which the original SimCity -- the one I spent the most time playing -- codified a now-outmoded planning orthodoxy:
In short, Sim City could be hailed as a triumph of reactionary brainwashing -- in that it instilled in a generation of 1990s teen geeks all the worst assumptions of 1960s city planning.
But, let's not not pick on a decades-old video game. Let's imagine a new Sim-something instead -- one that codifies the values we thing are important today, in 2009.
How about SimRegion? It would be all about region-wide transportation infrastructure, water management, food production (big emphasis on that), migration, and more. Hmm. That sounds educational. And boring.
Maybe SimSocialNetwork. Forget geography. This one's all about tending an online garden of weak ties and attention-feeds. (I'm not being sarcastic. I think, abstracted in the right way, this could actually be fun and instructive.)
Or how about some kind of bifurcated simulation: SimHealthCareSystemAndIndividual. One side's macro, the other's micro. You play both, and see how decisions on one side affect the other. I like the sound of that, actually. The trick with any social simulation is that, inevitably, the way you design it says a lot about how you view the world. So the micro/macro sim would play up that tension; the models might even be designed to sort of "fight" each other. SimBourgeoisAndProletariat.
(Via Noah Brier.)
File under: Snarkonomics, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture, Video Games
June 7, 2009
I'm left feeling incredibly unsure about how to express my negative feelings, having attempted this paragraph half a dozen times. I don't want to give anything away that happens in the game, but I do want to discuss my experience of playing as Ruby, and why it genuinely upset me. I think this is The Path's greatest achievement -- to be capable of being genuinely upsetting.
And then check out the comments. This is not the kind of convo you usually get about a new game release. Granted, this is all on Rock Paper Shotgun, which is already sort of the New Yorker of game blogs. But even so.
May 10, 2009
Kindle Up Your Textbooks, Children
The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Kindle DX and the market for electronic textbooks:
Most college students—more than 80 percent, according to a survey by Educause—already own portable machines that can display electronic textbooks: They're called laptops. And more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.
Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to printed ones on their shelves. "It's a very small percentage of our sales at this point," said Bill Dampier, general manager of MBS Direct, a major textbook reseller.
What the textbook industry needs is the equivalent of an iTunes store for e-books, say some experts, who note that sales of digital music never took off until Apple created the iPod and an easy-to-use online music marketplace. That's why Amazon seems like a promising entrant.
Except for one thing: Publishers have already set up a digital store meant to serve as the iTunes of e-textbooks, and it has been slow to catch on. The online store, called CourseSmart, was started two years ago by the five largest textbook publishers. Now 12 publishers contribute content to the service, which offers more than 6,300 titles. The e-books are all designed to be read on laptops or desktops, rather than Kindles or other dedicated e-book reading devices.
One problem for CourseSmart has been a lack of awareness by both students and professors that the service even exists.
Yep -- sounds about right. You think we'd be easy to target, but we're actually not. In fact, probably the ONLY two media/publishing companies with significant overlapping penetration among both students and professors would be Amazon and Apple.
Also of note: the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever. (I remember the first book I ever used that required you to register a CD w/ a unique ID number in order to use it; SBS sold it to me at about 75% of cover used and then refused to take it back. I had to buy the new copy again.)
Also also of note: one of the lines Bezos used again and again in his Kindle presentation (from the transcripts I've seen -- anybody know where I could find video) with respect to textbooks is "structured content." I actually think this is a hugely important idea. A book gives a text physical form, sure, but that physicality works together with paratextual devices to structure its content. Page numbers, title pages, tables of content, indices, volume and chapter devisions, footnotes/endnotes, captions, commentary, usw.
This is why Project Gutenberg or any other kind of throw-it-up-there text file service will always suck. It's also why a lot of digital archives don't work. We need ways to give content structure, and to make that structure easily and productively navigable to users. Ebooks have suffered from a lack of legitimate and visible marketplaces, but to borrow a metaphor, they've also suffered from really crappy gameplay. Whoever figures out how to solve these problems will solve long-form electronic reading.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Learnin', Marketing, Object Culture, Technosnark, Video Games
April 5, 2009
Making Reality Operational
Friend of Snarkmarket Nav at Scrawled In Wax has a thoughtful meditation on the relationship of video games to other art forms (and to reality), spurred on by playing LittleBigPlanet:
Video games can also tell stories, but many people argue that narrative -- particularly telling stories, or "diegesis" - isn't their primary function. Instead of relying on the representation of a world to tell tales, video games rely on simulation, not to recreate the world but in order to create a world as an arena for simulated action. And by collapsing both play and creation into one experience, blurring the distinction between the two, LittleBigPlanet becomes a metaphor for gaming itself in which the uniqueness of games as a cultural form becomes clear.
If literary texts work primarily through representation, and secondly by reader interaction, the inverse is true of video games: even in the most "realistic" games, it is the creative, interactive element that is paramount, and it is through this that players produce their own narratives as they move through a world that references "life" but is neither constrained by it nor bound to its rules...
And while I myself will always be partial to the intensely interior nature of literature, LittleBigPlanet suggests that, as gaming develops, its potential and power will be found in its capacity to empower players to create worlds never before imagined - and then, as was never possible before, step into them.
Let me tweak Nav's terms a little, because I think actually that "diegesis" DOESN'T just mean narrative, and is flexible enough to cover the "reader interaction" that he's talking about. Broadly speaking, diegesis is the interaction, rather than the story -- we associate it with narrative because it's a way to describe all the tools a narrator uses to tell a story rather than simply recount what happened. When a good storyteller hooks you in, THAT's diegesis. (Narrative in this sense would be one kind of diegesis.)
I particularly like the idea that video games and literature/film are at opposite ends of the teeter-totter that is mimesis/representation and diegesis/reader interaction -- they're important aspects both, but actually diegesis (I guess we'd call this "gameplay") is way more privileged in video games, precisely because of the high emphasis on interactivity.
I'll add another wrinkle. In fancy-pants film theory we often talk about the way that a viewer is "sutured" or stitched into the mind-space of the film. Basically, when you're watching a movie, you've got to take some kind of subject position -- usually it's that of the third-person who watches, taking turns identifying with one or another of the characters' point-of-view. And traditional movie techniques are all about making that subject-position super comfortable. You're sitting back, watching Bogart and Bergman and Dooley Wilson talk in Casablanca, one of them kind of at the center-left of the screen and one kind of at center-right, cutting back and forth, and you never stop to think, "hey! what's going on! where the hell am I?" The movie's doing its job, making all of this stuff transparent. While crazy art movies, like Pier Paolo Pasolini's, flip the axis and do disjunctive montages, so you can't get comfortable or find an easy space to identify with. And that's the point.
Scott McCloud talks about something similar in comic books -- we can identify with a character as an avatar if there's just enough detail that he/she seems real-ish, but not so much that he/she seems like somebody else, which is weirdly uncanny. So the more precisely iconic a character is -- whether Homer Simpson or Batman -- the easier it is for us to say, "that could be me."
Video games definitely work on both levels. The characters themselves have to be iconic - enough detail to distinguish them from being merely generic, not so much that we reject the ID altogether. But what really hooks us in is the gameplay, and in order for the gameplay to feel right, it, too, has to feel iconic -- simple enough in its execution to be manipulable and masterable, complex enough in its representation to "feel" real. This is the difference between trying to make the character on the screen -- what my mom would call "the guy" -- do different things, and feeling as if you yourself were doing them. Where you can call the character "I," or intermediately, "my guy."
I feel like I'm venturing too far afield. Suffice it to say, this reality/representation/narrative/interaction stuff is surprisingly profound once you start to get into it. And the fact that most of it is, for us, unconscious, helps to show both how good games tap into our brain's capacity for this kind of agent-mediated thinking and how thoroughly acculturated most of us are to the representational/interactive grammar of video games. Just like with films, when it's working really well, we don't even notice it any more.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Movies, Video Games
March 29, 2009
Civ, Counterfactual Progress, and the Rolling Katamari Ball of Science
This post is hard to sum up because it's sort of about everything.
Why did science and history unfold the way they did?
Why didn't somebody in China invent the electric light bulb? In an alternate reality with no Edison and, let's say, no America, does anybody invent an electric light bulb?
Is the video game Civilization's "technology tree" a good model for technology and history -- or just a dorky game mechanic? Rob MacDougall had his students think about alternative models. One of his favorites invoked the imagery of Katamari Damacy:
The student's idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue -- navigation, metalworking, what have you -- but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I'm not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it's fun to wrap your head around.
It all springs forth from a class called Science, Technology, and Global History. There is nothing not to like here. (Thanks for the link, Dan!)
File under: Snarkonomics, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Video Games, Worldsnark
March 17, 2009
Snark by Snarkwest: From Film to Video Games
March 16, 2009
Snark by Snarkwest: Another Games Panel
March 15, 2009
Snark by Snarkwest: Interface Lessons from Game Design
March 1, 2009
The New Media and the New Military
Whoa -- retired Marine officer Dave Dilegge and military blogger Andrew Exum (spurred by Thomas Ricks's new book The Gamble) look at the effect of the blogosphere on how the military shares information and tactics:
Ricks cited a discussion on Small Wars Journal once and also cited some things on PlatoonLeader.org but never considered the way in which the new media has revolutionized the lessons learned process in the U.S. military. [...] Instead of just feeding information to the Center for Army Lessons Learned and waiting for lessons to be disseminated, junior officers are now debating what works and what doesn't on closed internet fora -- such as PlatoonLeader and CompanyCommand -- and open fora, such as the discussion threads on Small Wars Journal. The effect of the new media on the junior officers fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was left curiously unexplored by Ricks, now a famous blogger himself.
It seems clear that blogging and internet forums disrupt lots of traditional thinking regarding the way information is generated and disseminated -- but it's a testament to how powerful it can change readers'/writers' expectations that that disruption can carry through to the military, the top-down bureaucracy if ever there was one.
In related news, the recent New Yorker article about the low-recoil automatic shotguns mounted on robots was awesome.
Just as at a certain point, the military decided it was a waste to have a professional soldier cook a meal or clean a latrine, we'll come to see it as a waste for a professional soldier NOT to provide decentralized information that can help adjust intelligence and tactics: all soldiers will be reporters. Soon all of our wars are going to be fought by robots, gamers, and bloggers. Our entire information circuitry will have to change.
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy, Snarkpolitik, Video Games
February 28, 2009
The Future of the E-Book Marketplace
Farhad Manjoo's jeremiad about the dangers of the Kindle is, um, weird. Give him points for originality, though -- for Manjoo, the Kindle isn't a joke that nobody will read, or an electronic interloper that will kill the book.
Instead, the Kindle is too good -- which means that Amazon will dominate the market and control book publishing the way iTunes controls the music industry.
The Kindle isn't the first electronic device to impose unpalatable restrictions on users. Until recently, if you wanted to (legally) download a broad range of major-label music for your iPod, you had to buy it from Apple.* (Ironically, it was Amazon that launched the first big online store that sold music without restrictions.) The same goes for video games. You can't play just any game on your Xbox. You can play only the games that have been approved and licensed by Microsoft. Then there's the iPhone, a veritable electronic Attica. The iPhone lets you buy music wirelessly -- as long as you buy it from Apple. The iPhone lets you add new programs to your device -- though only the programs that Apple approves of. Other than that, you're free to do what you like!
But the Kindle's restrictions are more worrying than those associated with the iPhone, the iPod, and other gizmos. For one thing, if you objected to the iTunes Store's policies, there was always another way to legally buy music for your iPod -- you could buy CDs (from Amazon, perhaps) and rip the tracks to MP3. That's not an option for books; there's no easy way to turn dead trees into electrons. Moreover, books are important. As a culture, we've somehow determined that it's OK for a video-game console maker to demand licensing fees and exercise complete control over the titles that get on to their systems. Sure, this restricts creativity and free expression, but if that's the business model that keeps the game business alive, so be it.
But we've come to a different cultural consensus on books. First, we've decided that books should be sharable -- when you buy a book, you can pass it along to others freely. In fact, governments and large institutions actively encourage the practice; we build huge, beautiful buildings devoted to lending books to perfect strangers. We've also decided that there should be an aftermarket for books: When you buy a book, you're also buying the right to sell that book when you're done with it. This not only helps people who can't afford new books, it also encourages those who can afford them to buy more -- it's much less risky to buy a $30 hardcover if you know you can sell it for $15 in six months. (Amazon is one of the biggest players in the used-book market.) And we'd certainly balk at a world in which your books were somehow locked to the store where you bought them. Say Barnes & Noble signed a deal to sell the next Twilight book at a huge discount. But with a catch -- the book would be published in invisible ink, and in order to read it you'd need to buy a special Barnes & Noble black light. This is ludicrous, of course, and no bookstore would ever attempt such a deal. But what's the Kindle other than a fancy digital decoder ring?
I don't understand how Manjoo can move so effortlessly from totally legitimate comparisons -- the answer to this last rhetorical question is that the Kindle is very much like a video game console, and that's a powerfully suggestive way to look at it -- to "ludicrous" ruminations about invisible ink and digital decoders, usw.
We didn't "decide" that books were especially important for our culture and deserved a special status under the law, anymore than we decided that shoes or clothes deserved the same -- we trade and lend those secondhand, too. That's one of the intrinsic benefits (or, if you're a content owner, a drawback) of the technology. And we have, at different points in our history, placed pretty serious restrictions on what can be published, printed, and sold. We fought that out, politically and economically -- and if the Kindle starts to bring unnecessary weight, we'll fight that out too. As, if you haven't noticed, we are everywhere these days -- not least because industrious people are turning dead trees into electrons every day. (It may not be as easy as ripping a CD -- but it can be done.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Video Games
February 25, 2009
So long as we're talking about classic literature morphing into monster movies, let's take a moment to look at Dante's Inferno, a new video game, um, loosely based on The Divine Comedy:
EA's take still features Dante as the protagonist, but the poet-philosopher is now a hulking veteran of the Crusades. He returns home from war to find Beatrice, the subject of his love and admiration, murdered. When her soul is "kidnapped" by Lucifer himself, Dante dives down to the very depths of hell, armed with Death's scythe, to win her back...
Dante's Inferno stands in a rather awkward place. The source material is a treasured piece of culture, yes, but it's far less likely to incite fanboy wrath than would a videogame adaptation of a contemporary movie or comic book series. Liberal arts majors might be shocked to find Dante morphed into a hypermasculine action hero. Other people won't care...
On the bright side, the story behind Dante's Inferno was pretty much fleshed out back in the 14th century, detailing hell's nine levels and many of the potential boss characters, so the development team likely just needs to fill in the blanks.
Look, classics get adapted, translated, bowdlerized all the time. But it's important to remember that in popular culture, people don't remember the original -- they remember the bowdlerization. I bet in a few years, we'll start to see college students who "know" that Inferno is about Dante rescuing Beatrice from Hell.
All the same, if they get the centaurs and the lake of boiling blood right, I am there. And who knows? Maybe some of the kids might even learn what "simony" means.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Video Games
January 30, 2009
Virginia Heffernan at NYT would totally be way up high in my bloggers' fantasy draft, with Scott Horton, John Gruber, Carmen van Kerckhove, Jim Fallows, Daniel Larison, Ron Silliman, Ben Vershbow (ret.), Eileen Joy... anyways, you see where this is going.
Anyways, her new magazine essay on digital reading with her three-year-old son is eminently blogworthy, not least for the universal reference:
I'd like for Ben to sit with One More Story and come away with the impression that he'd been read beautiful books all afternoon. But Ben tends to ask for One More Story when he wants privacy, the same state of mind in which he likes videos. Books, by contrast, are for when he feels snuggly.
Which brings up something significant about books for a 3-year-old: whatever else preschool reading is, it's intimate. Before you can read, you get to see books mostly when you're cuddled up with an adult or jostling with other kids in a circle.
Heffernan goes on to say: "I'm not sure he's developing an appreciation for books. But he is learning how to enrich his solitude, and that is one of the most intensely pleasurable aspects of literacy." Other intriguing thoughts include the relationship between interactive digi-books and video games, TV, and movies, the Freakonomics thesis that having books in your house is more important than reading them to your children, and a reluctant skepticism towards viewing digital reading as "reading-plus." I don't agree with everything VH throws out there, but it's all worthwhile.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Object Culture, Recommended, Video Games
January 4, 2009
Games, Art, the Usual
John Lanchester in the LRB does what I thought was impossible: advances the state of the conversation about games and art a bit. He's quite tough on video games, but reading his piece, you also get the sense that he actually plays lots of them. He knows his Fallout 3 from his LittleBigPlanet.
I like this line:
Miyamoto has, throughout his career, engaged with the question of arbitrariness by making his games more arbitrary, more silly -- by making that silliness part of the fun.
And this seems like a fair verdict, for the time being at least:
Not all games are cynically, affectlessly violent, but a lot of them are, and this trend is holding video games back. It's keeping them at the level of Hollywood blockbusters, when they could go on to be something else and something more.
I've gotten a bit bored with video games and meta-video-game commentary alike lately. I think my problem is so much of the innovation and excitement at the moment is around clever mechanics: the Wii, the iPhone's touch controls, games like World of Goo and (see below) Zen Bound. And I am bored with that stuff. I want to see games with different content -- and that's why I like Lanchester's piece.
(Via Matt P. and Rachel.)
November 17, 2008
Your Brain On Video Games
I've always wondered whether the kind of video games you like (or whether you like video games at all) tells you about what kind of person you are. Early arcade games were built around reflexes, patterns, and a relatively limited set of moves, attracting the kind of guys featured in King of Kong. My older brother is pretty good at sports, but unbelievably good at any kind of sports game, even ones he hasn't played before -- even sports he hasn't played before. Some people's brains just seem to be wired for certain kinds of games. Me, I'm good at a lot of video games, but I really like Minesweeper, Final Fantasy II, and Wii Tennis.
Clive Thompson writes a little bit about the relationship between the brain and video games in his review of Mirror's Edge, a new first-person video game that (Thompson says) uniquely leverages human neurology -- specifically our sense of proprioception, "your body's sense of its own physicality":... Read more ....
August 1, 2008
Donkey Kong As Symbol of Modern Oligarchy
Kottke's plug for the Independent Documentary Association's list of the 25 best documentaries reminds me to recommend one that was underhyped last year -- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I like Keith Phipps' perceptive review best; he calls it "a film about what it takes to make it in America." It's hilarious, a bit sad, and enormously revealing.
June 17, 2008
April 6, 2008
FYI, the Line Rider Dude's Name is Bosh
Terrific interview with Boštjan Cadez, the creator of Line Rider. I wonder: If you could somehow tally up the total cultural impact of something like Line Rider, what would it be roughly equivalent to? An indie band's new album? A minor hit cable TV show? Something smaller? Something bigger?
(FYI, Snarkmarket's TCI is approximately equivalent to a single mid-January stump speech by a third-tier presidential candidate. I just checked.)
We're in this weird phase where bizarre niche hits, powered by viral internet jet fuel, can be really huge... but still somehow invisible.
Re: Line Rider-as-technology, not Line Rider-as-web-phenomenon, I liked this bit of explanation:
Anyway, I enjoyed procedural animation because it didn't involve frame by frame 'slave' work, which I was always too lazy to do. But procedural stuff gets boring, monotone and predictive very fast. It especially bugged me with VJ-ing. Pre-coded stuff was too much like video -- too much in the past -- and even if it was reacting to audio in real time, it looked always the same. So I started thinking about how to find something which had the best of both worlds: something which I could change on the fly, some way of animating stuff by just drawing it.
I think there's a lot of potential in that "best of both worlds." Think: Spore, Crayon Physics, and things yet to come.
February 23, 2008
Spore's Procedural Jams
That link includes a small picture of the programming environment he used, but you've got to see Aaron interact with it live to understand how truly cool it is. It's this crazy hybrid of computer code and, like, circuit design, and the music keeps playing as he makes changes, so you hear it evolving and improving in real-time.
Bonus: Here's some video of Aaron demoing part of the game.
February 20, 2008
January 8, 2008
Pundits: The Eyeball Monster
There's a giant eyeball monster in Super Paper Mario that tracks you in every direction as you move around a room and shoots laser beams at you. To defeat it, Mario has to flip into 3D mode and run around and around it until it tries to shoot, gets confused, and implodes.
Eyeball monster = media pundits. Mario = '08 Presidential candidates. It's fun to watch.
December 20, 2007
Over the past year, I have successfully acquired five Wiis at retail price; I felt this was notable enough for a blog post.
Wii #1: Purchased 11/06, for a vita.mn contest. Camped out in front of a Target in beautiful Red Wing, MN, at 4:45 a.m., behind Jan, Peter, Elaine, Philip and Sam, in front of a group of about 50. When we finally got the golden tickets (to come back and get a Wii), me and four of the others went to Denny's while we waited for the store to open.
Wiis #2 & 3: Got a call one random Sunday afternoon in August from my coworker's boyfriend, who saw some Wiis sitting on a shelf at Target. Drove to Target, picked up one for me and one for my nephews/niece.
Wiis #4 & 5: Purchased from Amazon mere seconds after receiving text messages from WiiAlerts.com. One is for a vita.mn contest, the other is for a friend's wife to give to a friend for Christmas. Big ups to WiiAlerts; it totally works.
November 27, 2007
Interesting interview up at Gamasutra with one of the developers of the 3D Mario games, from Mario 64 to Mario Galaxy. They get into some pretty great detail:
One example [of a persistent problem with 3D] is the difficulty of stomping Goomba enemies in 3D, a basic, typical activity in a Mario game. "On the TV screen, objects don't have the same kind of physicality," [Koizumi] said. "That's what makes it difficult to make people grasp the physicality and depth."
One solution is adding shadow. "We decided to drop a shadow on the ground everywhere in Mario 64," said Koizumi. "That way, every floating object would have a reference point on the ground." Shadows are so effective at conveying depth, said Koizumi, that adding them has become an "iron-clad necessity," having shadows fall directly under the character regardless of the light source. "It might not be realistic, but it's much easier to play with the shadow directly below," he added.
(Emphasis mine.) Or, how about this: Why is Mario Galaxy set on spherical planetoid levels?
Neither will the player get lost easily, or need to adjust the camera -- by using spheres, Koizumi said, they had created a game field that never ended.
This became the overall theme of development – "we should tune the game so people can play without ever having to think about the camera," Koizumi said.
It's so the camera -- a thorny problem in 3D games, even today -- never has to change direction! Sneaky!
There's lots more on realism vs. gameplay in there. Worth a read.
November 19, 2007
Check Out the Death Map
September 18, 2007
August 20, 2007
August 8, 2007
Serious Games with Stephen Colbert
Seriously, is it just me, or did Bogost weather the Colbert interview better than almost any (sort of semi-serious) guest ever? And managed to get some subtle points across! I'm floored.
(I realize this could just be b/c I am pre-obsessed with this topic. Tell me if his performance wasn't actually as awesome as I think.)
July 31, 2007
If You Live in New York, Go to This
June 24, 2007
School of Games
The nonprofit John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today announced that it has awarded a grant of $1.1 million to assist in the development of a New York City public school aimed at teaching literacy and other skills through game design and game-inspired methods to children in grades 6-12.
All players in the school -- teachers, students, parents and administrators -- will be empowered to innovate using 21st century literacies that are native to games and design. This means learning to think about the world as a set of in interconnected systems that can be affected or changed through action and choice, the ability to navigate complex information networks, the power to build worlds and tell stories, to see collaboration in competition, and communicate across diverse social spaces.
Okay, that actually manages to make it sound less cool... but seriously, come on, think about it. This is 100% the future.
June 22, 2007
Frame-Grab from the Future
So Second Life and it ilk generally leave me cold these days, but I gotta admit, these notes from a panel on virtual worlds made me shiver a little. By the time they get to the Q&A it's nuts. Definitely worth a read.
May 26, 2007
Gray Lady Gaming
All right. All right. I think I might finally have to break down and get TimesSelect. The NYT is running Flash games as editorials.
(Actually, I think it's a huge mistake to put these games -- especially the first few! -- behind the pay wall. They are viral material. So maybe capitulation would send the wrong signal?)
May 20, 2007
Historian Niall Ferguson loves simulation games. The piece (by Clive Thompson, natch) is so tightly-written that it resists blockquoting... so just go read it.
Okay, one blockquote. This is a pretty rad statement coming from a Harvard historian:
"Serious games are the next big platform," he says.
I've been reading "The End of History and the Last Man" to get ready for Francis Fukuyama's fast-approaching Long Now talk and now I'm wondering what the End of History game would look like...
I think it might involve holding down for two seconds, then pressing up and the A button to make Hegel do a lightning kick.
April 16, 2007
In Peacemakers, you play a leader of either Israel or Palestine. To win as Israel, you have to earn a high approval rating with the people of both Israel and Palestine. To win as Palestine, you must win the hearts of both Palestinians and residents of other parts of the world. If your approval rating with either of your constituencies sinks below a given threshold, you lose. The simulation is illustrated with video footage from actual news reports. Ernest Adams writes it up for Gamasutra.
April 12, 2007
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games
Awesome, awesome, awesome: Matt Barton at Gamasutra is writing an encyclopedic, illustrated history of computer role-playing games. Part one (1980-1983), part two (1985-1993), part three (1994-2004). Open, print, snuggle up in bed.
March 30, 2007
Usually they get made and sort of sit there. Well, the guy behind Desktop Tower Defense... is upgrading it!
This is brilliant. If Desktop Tower Defense gets new enemies and units every two weeks or so I am pretty much never going to stop playing.
February 25, 2007
The Restaurant Game
Another awesome idea passed along by Grand Text Auto: The MIT Media Lab has created a lightweight multiplayer restaurant simulation. You can play as a waitron or as a diner, and all your interactions with other players will be recorded and used to train an AI system. The resulting AI will power a single-player game, to be released next year.
February 24, 2007
Flash-Based Epidemiologic Strategy Game
My high score in Virus 2 is 43441. I got down to 25 attempts, and my fastest growth time was 23.
I think I'd wager that the number of games invented in the last 10 years and spread around the world outweighs the number invented in the last 10,000.
February 12, 2007
Why Was I Not Told of These Sooner?
Game Tunnel lists the top ten indie games of 2006. I had not heard of a single one... and they all look great!
Especially "Kudos"... holy moley, seriously?
Kudos is a turn based strategy game where you control someone's life. You decide where they work, who they hang out with, and what they do to relax. Do you want to be an alcoholic saxophone playing taxi driver? or maybe a reclusive but brilliant astrophysicist. Kudos is not about flashy graphics or high polygon counts. Kudos is about exploring areas of gameplay you haven't seen in mainstream games. Hopefully, Kudos is pretty original.
I am going to try this out; I'll let you know how it goes.
January 20, 2007
December 17, 2006
November 6, 2006
Gears of War... and... Sadness
You know that trick where you mix hyperviolent action sequences with slow, wistful music and it makes it all feel really deep? Yeah, that trick really works.
What makes it noteworthy in this case is that it's a sequence from a videogame... and that makes me wonder: How cool would it be if, in the game itself, when the action hit a certain threshold, a fever pitch of annihilation, the music shifted gears just like this and things slowed down a little?
What kind of feeling would that create? Could it make you feel, er, a little bad about all the relentless killing? A little melancholy about the whole situation?
Now that would be interesting!
October 20, 2006
World of Falstaff
Edward Castronova, the virtual-world economist who writes at Terra Nova, is building a Shakespeare-themed MMOG at Indiana University. It's going to be set in "Richard III" to start. I think this sounds supercool. I just hope the aesthetics are up to snuff; too often, academic game projects are full of high-level ideas... and 1996-level graphics.
October 16, 2006
There is a secret song hidden in many Nintendo games published over the past ten years.
It sounds exactly as a secret song should.
September 25, 2006
Interactive Story, Act Two
The guys who made Façade (previously: here and here) are making a new interactive narrative game, and it sounds weird. I don't yet know whether I mean that in the weird-cool or the weird-uh-okay sense.
Façade is worth a spin if you've never tried it. It's very inventive. Note to the Façade guys for this new joint: Inventive-ness doesn't make up for crappy graphics. Use the Unreal Engine or something.
Blast from the past: Searching for "facade" in the archives I found this post. It's good! And it has one of my favorite Snarkmarket comment threads of all time.
September 9, 2006
Sony's Talmudic Parable
New contender for least expected cultural cross-comparison ever: Friend of the snark Josh Korr compares Sony and Nintendo to Hillel and Shammai.
September 2, 2006
Oh, this is incredibly sweet: MMO demographics overlord Nick Yee has a new report about real-world relationships that began in games like Everquest and WoW. It's more narrative journalism than dry survey, honestly, and it's one of the most fascinating windows into relationships, not just games, that I have gotten in a long time.
Check out this page in particular, about the subtle virtues of the MMO environment:
As other players point out, working together through crises reveals much more about another person than going to the movies with them. Watching how someone interacts with others in different social settings (under different amounts of stress) and how they work through problems can be very character-revealing.
I found that the way people acted to me in-game was usually the way they acted towards me and others in real life. EQ was a great way to see how a potential partner treated others. [WoW, F, 22]
August 14, 2006
Microsoft is releasing a free development kit for Xbox 360 games: You make them on your PC and download them to the Xbox. It ain't exactly full democratization of game development -- you can't share games made this way with random friends on Xbox Live -- but still, it's pretty great. Deets on Gamasutra.
Update: Microsoft's Peter Moore enumerates eight ways to open up the world of game development. Excellent and correct.
August 7, 2006
Where's the Merchant Ivory of Video Games?
I'm not sure I agree with the analogy here, but it's a fun read: Ernest Adams on why we need highbrow games in Gamasutra.
July 27, 2006
An Alien to Call Your Own
When you play Spore, will you be to order a real, physical 3D 'printout' of your totally custom alien creature? Signs say yes. That is SO cool.
July 7, 2006
Test Drive Unlimited
Whoah! This game sounds awesome!
The game models the entire Hawaiian island of Oahu and allows players to race any of 90 cars over more than 1,000 miles of roads [...] the idea is that thousands of players will cruise the island simultaneously over the Internet, challenging one another at any traffic light to lay down some rubber. On the Xbox 360, the game's main system, the graphics dazzle and the cars evoke a realistic sense of speed.
Note that I am now a proud possessor of an Xbox 360, and thus especially interested in news of cool games for said system.
July 3, 2006
The Lester Bangs of Ludology
The game criticism of tomorrow won't look anything like the stuff that Pauline Kael wrote. It'll be some crazy, unruly spawn of sportswriting, gonzo journalism, analytic philosophy, memoir and investigative reporting. The Lester Bangs of gaming is going to be a philosopher of play.
Really great piece. Go read it.
June 30, 2006
Monkey Island's Maker
Publishers today, if you look at any of the mainstream publishers, they get so fixated on these very large budgets. It's kind of amazing. For instance, the budget for my game is actually quite modest compared to most, and that's actually a red flag for them. If you don't come in wanting to spend $10 or $15 million, it's like they don't take you seriously at some level, and I think that's a real problem.
June 27, 2006
On the heels of Half-Life 2 I downloaded and played Half-Life 2: Episode One, the first in a series of Half-Life episodes that Valve is releasing: $19.95, a solid four hours of fun, big cliffhanger at the end, next episode in a couple of months. Done and done.
June 21, 2006
Massively Multimaker ...
June 20, 2006
Come On, Make Me Work
Encouraged by Matt's post, I saw Brick on Saturday night. Man oh man. What a perfect movie. Everything about it is great: the acting, the look, the mood, the style... even the shocking post-theater reminder that it was all done on a shoestring. The movie has a gravity and wholeness that suggests it will still be totally watchable in five years, or fifty.
But my favorite thing about Brick is the fact that it makes you work. Not work in a kind of loopy art-school way, but rather, you've simply got to keep your brain spinning as you watch it. No cinema-induced coma here. You've got to constantly process what's going on -- from the super-fast, super-stylized patter to the byzantine plotting -- to keep in step with the movie. Revelations don't thud into your lap; they sneak in the back door.
And the laughs are all so well-constructed and well-earned: There is not a single cheap one in this entire movie.
I think so many critics read it as a film-geek stunt (e.g.) because, well, they're film geeks. My non-film-geek verdict is A++ would watch again. In five years or fifty.... Read more ....
May 23, 2006
Business Quote of the Week
"Well that's the strategy our president picked. We try to act behind the scenes, and we follow our clients' desires, instructions and everything, so our policy is not to have a vision."
That's Koichi Sawada from game developer Tose, in an interview with Gamasutra. Tose is like the video game equivalent of Flextronics: a behind-the-scenes partner to lots of big, well-known companies. The interview is weirdly fascinating.
May 13, 2006
Went to E3, the big video game show, on Thursday. First thing in the morning I rushed to meet up with Kevin in line for the Nintendo booth.
Well worth the wait. The Wii controller is really well-designed, and although its current implementations -- in everything from tennis to the new Zelda -- are all fun and interesting, the coolest thing to me is that you can sense there's something even crazier waiting around the corner.
Here's Kevin on Wario Ware, which does a good job showing off some of the bizarre-o different ways you can use the controller:
April 14, 2006
Corporation for Public Gaming
March 23, 2006
You Don't Have Time For This.
There is nothing socially redeeming about the game Dad 'n' Me. It is violent, pointless, endless, and addictive. There's not even the ironic, hipster sheen that normally comes with playing video games past the age of 17. Why would you want to throw your life away at such a young age? Do not click here and play this game, because it will actually rot your mind. I link to it merely to warn you away.
March 2, 2006
At the Game Developer's Conference, Will Wright gives a 35-minute demo of Spore. In the game, you evolve a little creature over the eons, from bacteria to Battlestar Galactica -- that, we knew. But check this out: The rest of the world (and ultimately the universe) is filled out entirely by other creatures created by other players at other times. The game plucks them from the shared Spore-verse to build a balanced ecosystem.
If you watch the video to the end you'll get to hear Will Wright say the phrase "fractally surf."
February 19, 2006
Games That Make You Jump and Yell
In a presentation about games and stories, Kim Plowright cites an amazing video game moment:
The second is from Metal Gear Solid, where an apparently psychic character controls your ally/girlfriend, who starts shooting at you. He then starts reading your mind. The game reads your console memory, and Psycho Mantis [the psychic] makes snarky comments about other games you play. He then controls your character -- only by unplugging your controller and putting it into the other port can you defeat him. So you get up, in the real world, off the sofa, and break the fourth wall.
That is so cool.
And along similar lines, let me warn you right now NEVER to play the computer game F.E.A.R. I tried the first level late at night at Minus Kelvin's place and it freaked me OUT. (Here's the secret: As you explore a dark, scary warehouse, you never actually encounter any bad guys. All you see, the entire time, is fleeting shadows... and all you hear is footsteps in the next room. Creeeeeepy.)
February 9, 2006
Doing Deals in Azeroth
Jane Pinckard asks: Is World of Warcraft the new golf? That is: Is the game becoming a substrate for networking, even dealmaking?
Interesting idea, and I will add that I have heard stories -- independent of this article -- of tech execs using the game as an after-hours meeting space.
February 3, 2006
It's not surprising to hear Will Wright extoll the virtues of procedurally-generated video game content. But J. Allard, the head of Microsoft's Xbox unit? Slightly more surprising:
"(Gaming) is the only medium where we yield control of the protagonist. Let's yield control of the director--and the producer," said Allard, a vice president at Microsoft. "We're going to take on the Wikipedia model. We're going to take on...the open-source model, if you will, for gaming."
World of Wikicraft y'all.
P.S. I really cannot wait for Spore.
January 30, 2006
Free and Fun
Clive Thompson has a list of video games that are all both innovative and free. Can't go wrong!
January 25, 2006
Quantum Gaming in the Vic Viper
The New Gamer's R. LeFeuvre has just posted a video called "Averaging Gradius." Here's what's up:
A bunch of people recorded themselves playing the first level of the classic NES shooting game Gradius. (You're in a spaceship, you have to kill enemy spaceships, you get the idea.) Then, LeFeuvre layered all the recordings on top of each other. Because the game scrolls of it own accord, at a steady pace, the recordings all stay in sync -- except of course for each players' movements. So what you see, instead of a single ship going at it, is a fuzzy cloud of ships -- bright where strategies overlap, faint where someone does something especially daring (or dumb).
It's like quantum physics!
Seriously, I think this video is sublime. And I wonder: Could you make a game that emphasizes not precision but probability? How would it work?
January 23, 2006
SMB2, All Jazzed Out
Best ever. Adrian H has recorded a gypsy jazz version of the Super Mario Bros. 2 main theme, and it's crazy delicious, much like the game itself.
SMB2 was the unsung Super Mario Bros. game, and I could never figure out why. The feminist in me always appreciated that the Princess in SMB2 was finally given some agency beyond being the helpless, fainting damsel in distress that drives the plot in most Mario games. And she had the power of levitation, which was much cooler than Mario's janky raccoon tail in SMB3. (Although his cape in Super Mario World was excellent.) The game also had a very cool, cute, recognizably Japanese aesthetic about it. And something about plucking and chucking vegetables was oddly comforting. Two thumbs up, to the game, and its gypsy jazz revival.
January 20, 2006
Another MMORPG About War
But this one's free! Someone try out Enemy Nations and tell us if it's any good. According to TRFJ, it's "billed as ‘the best game you’ve never played’ and a cross between Sim City, Civilisation and Age of Empires." Not a bad pedigree.
January 9, 2006
Why Are Most Online Games About Genocide?
Raph Koster, one of the designers behind the Star Wars: Galaxies MMORPG, has a really excellent post up on his blog:
We shape the player experience by the verbs we provide. Right now, the only way to interact meaningfully with our fantasy worlds is at the edge of a sword, and through the barrel of a gun.
It's true. Not that online games should be Sesame Street scenarios... but come on, do they all have to be bloody crusades?
December 23, 2005
Snapshot from the Uncanny City
Pure Play in Adulthood
I started reading this post by Chris Bateman about theories of play and got sucked in despite the jargon, and I'm quite happy about it. It ends up framing a very interesting discussion about games in a light I'd never considered before.
Imagine that "play" is a continuum stretching from freeform, imaginative anarchy ("paidia") at one end to rules-based order ("ludus") at the other. As children, we start out with a natural tendency towards paidia -- we play nonsense games with dolls, we build worlds out of Legos, we bat about aimlessly with sticks, with no rules or direction in mind. (Although one theorist mentioned in the post argues that the unspoken cultural 'rules' underpinning these games are stricter and more elaborate than those you'd find in an instruction manual.) Paidia tends to be short-lived, generally evolving into ludus. As we play with our dolls and our Legos and our sticks, we start developing more and more rules and logical structures for our play. The dolls start acting out a scenario. The sticks find a target and a purpose.
As we age, we tend to skip paidia altogether and head straight for the ludus. Adults play card games and sports and board games with rulesets that are complicated from the outset. And the geeks among us prize those games with incredibly Byzantine engineering -- turn-based role-playing games, for example. These are games that have been carefully designed to incorporate many different patterns of play -- strategy, chance, competition, mimicry -- into a seamless whole.... Read more ....
December 19, 2005
Virtual Apocalyptic Tourism
Clive Thompson takes a spin around Asheron's Call 2 -- an online game scheduled to power down forever in just a couple of weeks -- to find out: What's it like in a place where the world is literally about to end?
November 16, 2005
Come Back To Me, Misbegotten Sons of Street Fighter II
It is a spurious argument, perhaps, but an appealing one. It did not always used to be the case that normal people had a PS2 and 12-year-old monster-trading boys had a Gamecube. Nintendo used to rock for all ages.
The larger point in hello, nintendo's blogpost is about the potential radness of the Revolution's controller, mentioned here before. It really is amazing that nobody else stopped to think, Hey, we're making a brand new game console... maybe we should change the controller. Funny how some assumptions are just sooo deep.
October 10, 2005
My Review of "Façade"
Remember how I promised to review Façade? Seemed like too much effort, after actually playing it. Aggregate the thoughts in this thread, and you pretty much have my review. Disappointing, although I'm always happy to see any stabs at innovation.
October 4, 2005
Silicon Scribes Unite
How cool is this? There's going to be a Game Writer's Conference in Austin! I feel that I would enjoy blog-style coverage of this event... I hope somebody steps up to the plate.
October 1, 2005
Video Game Financing
But if you possess such a quotient I predict you will find it rewarding reading; there's a lot of inside-baseball games-industry stuff that was entirely new to me.
September 29, 2005
Indigo Prophecy Released
Remember that awesome-sounding game called
Fahrenheit Indigo Prophecy I told you about last June (and updated you on in April)? It's finally out, and fortunately, it still sounds awesome. And it's got a super-respectable MetaCritic score of 85. Sadly, my PS2's in storage till Monday. Still gonna buy it though. (Via Grand Text Auto, which also tags to a long piece by the game's creator about the process of developing it.)
September 18, 2005
I was briefly skeptical of Nintendo's new controller design, but this promo just totally changed my mind. It's a little bizarre and over-the-top but I LOVE IT. Or rather, it's a little bizarre and over-the-top and therefore I LOVE IT.
September 14, 2005
Your Parents Help You Hook It Up
The first Zelda commercial (MPEG file). I want to say it's hilariously bad, but I just watched it three times in a row, so I guess on some level it's really, really excellent.
September 12, 2005
Site Discovery of the Day
I just ran across a video game criticism site I have never seen or heard of before -- The New Gamer. Featured on the home page is an essay from June titled discusses God of War: Guilt and Penance in Ancient Greece.
I know it seems too good to be true, but check it out:
While a sense of compassion may not have been what David Jaffe had intended when he created God of War, I'd be lying if I said I felt nothing as I dragged that solider down the hallway to his doom. Despite that, I continued playing -- all the way to the end, never outraged or disappointed in myself enough to cease playing, but then again I had also just solved a 'puzzle', I could revel in the glory that this sacrifice allowed me to dive deeper into the game, and get one more step closer to redemption. But is there redemption for the gamer in a pre-rendered ending?
So yes, it took me about twelve microseconds to add this site's feed to Bloglines.
August 29, 2005
Click Click, Woof Woof
Clive Thompson on Nintendogs, the new, um, dog simulator for the Nintendo DS.
Honestly I don't know what to think about this.
July 5, 2005
The interactive short story Façade has been released. I'll post with thoughts after I play it.
June 7, 2005
Towards An Interactive Story?
You, the player, using your own name and gender, play the character of a longtime friend of Grace and Trip, an attractive and materially successful couple in their early thirties. During an evening get-together at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, you become entangled in the high-conflict dissolution of Grace and Trip’s marriage. No one is safe as the accusations fly, sides are taken and irreversible decisions are forced to be made. By the end of this intense one-act play you will have changed the course of Grace and Trip’s lives – motivating you to re-play the drama to find out how your interaction could make things turn out differently the next time.
Façade is the first attempt I've heard of to make a graphical, interactive, real-time short story. You can call it a game, you can call it (as the makers do) a one-act play. But it's about to be released, and it's been in the works for several years (don't let the low-key graphics fool you).
The drama between Grace and Trip goes on with or without your interaction, but the words you type and the gestures and movements you make affect the narrative. The AI of each of the characters has been programmed to respond to a robust range of natural language.
The makers acknowledge the limitations of the project in their overview:
By the time Façade is done, we will have spent two man-years on authoring alone, but even this results in only a 20 minute one-act play replayable 6 or 7 times before it is exhausted. Furthermore, Façade of course does not achieve general purpose natural language understanding; instead it listens for a large variety of word patterns and phrases focused on the context of its dramatic situation, which feed into a discourse management system.
But even within those limits, if they've succeeded in "design[ing] an experience that provides the player with 20 minutes of emotionally intense, unified, dramatic action," I think they'll have accomplished something wholly new in video game design. I'm very curious to see if they've done it.
May 23, 2005
Another entry in the Everything Bad Is Good for You file, this one noted by Chad Capellman over at morph:
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Johan Santana, he of the 2004 AL Cy Young Award and a ridiculously dominant recent record for the Minnesota Twins, prepares for opponents by locking himself in a room and playing PlayStation.
As reported in the recent issue of Sports Illustrated:Either the night before or on the morning of the game, he'll check out the lineup of the team he's facing, take in how the hitters have done against him. Then, alone on his bed, he'll pick up his PlayStation Portable, plug in the team he'll soon be pitching against for real, and go to work. ...
"Believe it or not, sometimes I see things in video games that will come true," Santana says. "Particularly in the last year. They're coming up with some good games, so realistic -- the stats are so accurate, and you can go from there. I'm sure a lot of players will agree with what I'm saying. Because it gives you ideas. I see the scouting reports, though I don't go by that, and in these video games you can see what the hitters have, how to approach them. It's pretty cool.
May 19, 2005
Pushing the Limits (or) To Zerg Or Not To Zerg?
I wish I had more time to write about this mind-blowing entry from Terra Nova. Here's a bit to get you interested:
In fact, one might argue that the hallmark of a good gamer, as compared to a non-gamer who games, might be stated thusly: the gamer knows how to efficiently approach and parse a new world, where the non-gamer doesn't.
Zergs, by instinct, try to stretch the concept of the group to its natural conclusion: bigger is badder, and badder is a safer griffon upon from to throttle loot from poor souls. Besides, very large zergs have an epic feel… or at least a colorful spread of color and character – as far as they eye can see - between the lagged screen refreshes, that is.
May 18, 2005
The Hope That Is Nintendo
So, Microsoft and Sony have both busted out with their next-generation game systems: the Xbox 360 and PS3, respectively. They both look ridiculously powerful and full of cool potential.
But where is the game company to which I owe the most allegiance? Where is Nintendo?
As usual, wandering off in some other bizarre direction.
Big N has unveiled its next-generation system, the Revolution, but details are scant. And honestly, the thing doesn't even seem designed to compete with Microsoft and Sony's next-gen machines.
And yet, two things tantalize:
- Is Nintendo building a platform and toolset that will make it possible for normal nerds to once again make games in the fertile darkness of their basements? The possibility is raised by hello, nintendo. Some context: Games have become ridiculously complex and costly productions. It's like making a movie... except... harder. And you have to do it faster. It requires dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people and many millions of dollars. So the indie game makers of yore are few and far between these days, especially on consoles. Could Nintendo bring them back? How?
- Nintendo is also saying you'll be able to play 20 years of awesome Nintendo games on the Revolution. Ya gotta admit... that's cool. Because amazingly, Super Mario Bros. 3, published in 1988, still holds up.
April 24, 2005
I finally gave in and looked at Processing.org, the programming language for artists, and spent a good few hours today agape at the beauty and creativity on display in the exhibitions. Then I encountered Moovl, which stopped me in my tracks.
The 3D version of the creature editor was amazing, in that the creature was totally configurable. You could stretch and pull and tug or fatten it any way you liked, almost like working with clay. More importantly, you could add functional elements, like heads, mouths, eyes, tails, fins, claws, even legs and feet. Wright proceeded to add not two, but three legs to his creature. Then he let it loose.
Now, suddenly, his creature could walk. And he did so -- he walked right out of the sea and onto the land. This incredible moment in the history of evolution was made even more remarkable by the technology behind it: the game had figured out, procedurally, how a creature would walk if it had three legs (it was a kind of lopsided gait, if you're curious, with three steps: left, right, then middle.) No 3D modeler created the creature, and no 3D animator was required to make it move around -- it was all created out of a gamer's whim and a computer program smart enough to make it work.
Moovl can basically do that. Not in 3D, but it's cool enough in 2D that I don't mind that right now. Draw a hilariously simple doodle of a three-legged blob, train three of the feet to move, and voila, you've got a creature.
The official site is targeted to children, and the examples there aren't very inspiring, even though the applet's slightly better. I prefer the pared-down version and its examples over at Processing, especially "lovehurts" and "fistycuffs."
Part of what's amazing to me is how much those simple doodles in motion seem to suggest narratives. The story and the interactivity unite in these very logical rules and relationships which you have the power to build on or alter.
Something tells me that's going to be the storytelling model that ultimately turns video games inside out.... Read more ....
When Kids Used to Play Video Games
I was going to post a link to Steven Johnson's excellent NYT Magazine article called "Watching TV Makes You Smarter." Now I'll up the ante by also posting a link to a thought experiment on his blog where he asks what today's video game detractors would have said if video games had come before books. Both well worth reading.
April 22, 2005
World of Wikicraft
April 20, 2005
Above and Beyond the Call of Game Development Duty
This kinda rules: The game company BioWare contracted a linguistics Ph.D. student to invent a language for their new game, Jade Empire. Fun stuff:
He set about asking [the BioWare] team questions. He wanted to know the speakers' physiology. If they had no teeth, they wouldn't be able to make a "t" or "th" sound. They had teeth.
Public service announcement: I have just noticed that this blog has descended into abject nerdery: browser enhancements, gadgety cameras, Google Maps, and now video game development. Now of course Snarkmarket loves all of these things. But if you have just come to it in the last week or so, rest assured, we also discuss other topics. Go watch Fredo Viola's video again. We gots culture.
April 9, 2005
Integrated Circuit as Literature
Just after Robin posted this Gamespot link on storytelling and video games, I left for a vacation in Orlando and my parents' dial-up connection, so I could not contribute a proper reply. Here it is.
My favorite text addressing the place of video games within the spectrum of art/literature is Ernest Adams' lecture at the 2004 Game Developers Conference, "The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design."
You have to remember that Adams is talking to computer game developers, not academics, so he's reductive at best and flat-out wrong at worst. (You may have to struggle to trust anything he says after he begins by boiling the last 200 years of Western philosophy down to English philosophy -- logical and deductive -- and French philosophy -- touchy-feely. Germans, apparently, need not apply. And of course, you forgot Poland.) But once you get over his sketchy broad-brushing of history, he makes some wonderful points.
Adams maps video game storytelling onto the timeline of modern literary storytelling, and essentially decides that we're just exiting the classical era. This feels spot-on to me. As much as I love Final Fantasy IV, it appeals to me emotionally in the same blunt, soaring, epic way Beowulf does.
Video game storytellers of today, Adams says, are still coming around to the Victorian age:... Read more ....
April 1, 2005
Indigo Prophecy (Not 9/11)
Remember Fahrenheit? Probably not, 'cause I think I was the only one with a mild fixation on it. Anyway, it's now called "Indigo Prophecy" and it's being published by Atari, not Vivendi Universal. Ostensibly coming out for the PC in June, for the PS2 and Xbox in September. [ Interviews 1 | 2 with game creator David Cage ]
March 20, 2005
Games and Stories
Gamespot surprised me today with a long and detailed feature on storytelling in games by Greg Kasavin. From the intro:
I share the theory that the game industry is like a private eye who's so busy following the wrong lead that he lets his real target slip right through his fingers. Look at what games are doing: They're pushing more polygons and piling on more features. It's the equivalent of adding more explosions to an action movie; at some point, you start to get diminishing returns for your crazy budget even as the whole thing just turns dumb.
I think game designers should be pursuing a much more elusive objective: tapping into the true potential of this medium, using it to give the game player an eye-opening, virtually life-changing experience and turning the game player's world completely upside-down. And I believe the only way to accomplish this is through storytelling--using a game to tell a good story. This does not mean tacking a best-selling author onto a game as an afterthought; this means fundamentally constructing a game out of a story.
Seriously, I am still waiting for games-as-literature. I just finished a book by Harold Bloom, the guy who argued that Shakespeare literally invented modern consciousness. That claim seems rather, er, extreme, but true or not, I'd love for people to be claiming the same thing about some game designer in a couple hundred years.
March 15, 2005
The Medium You Create By Consuming
He's sidestepped the whole idea of massive teams of content creators in favor of a system of building games based on player-content and emergence. The results are stunning.
It's an incredibly detailed, exciting write-up. If you're at all into video games, check this out.
March 14, 2005
You start off as this insignificant bit of bacteria and you grow and evolve through advantageous mutation [...] You go from being bacteria to a galactic god.
On the face of it, this is raddest ever, but then again, the problem with these sim games is the sometimes spurious assumptions made in the algorithms. Well, I guess by "problem" I mean "dissimilarity to actual bacteria → galactic god evolutionary processes," which is probably okay. So never mind, raddest ever.
Update: More deets from Gamespot.
March 10, 2005
Emily Dickinson: The Game
2005 Game Design Challenge: Imagine a game based on... Emily Dickinson.
Will Wright, creator of Simcity, came up with "USB Emily Dickinson":
[...] The idea was to stuff a virtual Dickinson into a USB drive and have her behave like a sort of complex Tamagotchi. When ever she is plugged into your computer she would send you emails, instant messages and basically annoy the shit out of you. Over time she would develop a personality and relationship with you. If she ended up becoming suicidal she would even have the option of deleting herself from the drive. [...]
AWESOME. Other cool ideas, too.
March 9, 2005
That Ruby Sword of Blazing Fury Will Cost You $0.005
February 21, 2005
Citizens of EverQuest
Aeons ago, Clive Thompson wrote up this humdinger about the economies of virtual worlds -- MMORPGs and the like. Because people have begun assigning real-world monetary value to in-game items, the article explained, it's possible to study these games as if they were real economies.
So we can, for example, calculate the Gross National Product of Everquest, as Thompson's economist Edward Castronova decides to do -- it's $2,266 U.S. per capita. ("It was the 77th-richest country in the world," Thompson writes. "And it didn't even exist.")
And of course, we can actually profit from our in-game activities, Thompson reports, enough to pull in a six-figure salary or even power a whole company, with 100 full-time staff members.
The 6,200-word article is somehow chock full of fascinating little revelations. My favorite moment is when Thompson points out that Everquest began as a perfect meritocracy, "the world's first truly egalitarian polity," making it the economist's ideal social laboratory. That realization leads to this:... Read more ....
January 6, 2005
Time to Level Up
I've talked before about the dearth of good video game criticism; here's a great article on the subject from Westword, via Romenesko. Michael Roberts talks to leaders in the field (there are like, three) and closes with this kicker:
"People ask, 'Where's the Lester Bangs of video-game criticism?'" he says. "And I'm starting to think that might be the wrong question. Video games are a different kind of medium, and they need to be covered in a different way. We can't just borrow all of its idiom from film and rock criticism. But it should aspire to the same kind of quality that critics like Pauline Kael and Robert Christgau established.
"I see the association as being an expression of game journalism maturing," he adds. "We're trying to do something grown-up with it."
The article has a link to The Video Game Ombudsman, a site I've seen before but was happy to be reminded of.
November 23, 2004
Where is the Xbox's Pauline Kael?
Terra Nova is with me: There's not enough video game criticism.
This last graf is interesting, if convoluted:
But it's an interesting cart-and-horse problem. Do you get a compelling and widespread form of mainstream games criticism only when the demographic of a national population that plays games becomes less isolated, or could the commitment of journalistic resources to developing a games criticism that matches the breadth, relative depth or resource base of film criticism help to write games more visibly into national narratives of popular culture, in line with their economic significance?
I recall someone telling me recently -- who was it? -- that film writing began a lot earlier than we generally realize. Even back in the silent film era, in the earliest part of this century, people were publishing little newsletters with film synopses and recommendations.
And I guess that's about equivalent to the video game journalism we have today... jeez, are we only in the silent film era of video games? Is that heartening or scary?
If Halo 2 is like The Jazz Singer, what's the video game Citizen Kane going to be like? Or Star Wars? Dang!
*Note the absence of quote marks or italics around any of the movie or video game titles. I've decided I'm done with that junk. It's all plain capitalization from here on out. I know you were wondering.
June 28, 2004
Fahrenheit (Not 9/11)
I'll spare you my review of Michael Moore's crockumentary. Suffice it to say I mostly agree with Chris Hitchens. (I know, I know. I just washed my mouth out with soap.)
I am currently crossing my fingers for the dim, but newly existent, chance that someone has answered my prayers for a good adventure game for the Playstation 2.
Fahrenheit debuted at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, and according to scattered accounts, it completely knocks sliced bread off the map. It's got a decent basic storyline -- complete strangers in New York are killing each other at random, each enacting the same bizarre ritual before committing the murder -- which you can actually affect depending on your actions in the game. (It starts, by the way, after you've just committed one of these random murders.)
And by affect, it apparently doesn't just mean that you get the Murasame sword with seven jewels of power instead of five if you beat the silver-tongued Gorgon using only copper weapons. It seems there are serious game-shattering consequences for your actions. For instance, you could do one thing and play the game for four hours only to discover that the thing you did four hours ago completely screwed you, and now you've lost. Which has the possibility to be very frustrating, but if the game is dynamic enough to keep you playing, then it could also be very, very cool. From the review I linked above:
There is no inventory in the game, which is intended to add an element of realism. You’ll only have whatever you have in your hand. So, pick up the bloody white shirt. Now you’re holding a bloody shirt; what are you going to do with it? You can’t do much else; you’ve got to deal with this darn shirt in your hands first. If there’s one ridiculous thing we just accept about adventure games (other than it should always be impossible to die), it’s that there’s always room in our pockets for more inventory; whatever size, whatever shape. Fahrenheit confronts that un-reality head-on.
At some point, you will either decide to leave your apartment, or your time will run out and the police will arrive. Here is where the game really gets interesting: at this point, your player-character will become Inspector Carla Valenti, inspecting the recent ritual murder. Lucas Kane is your suspect, and here you are at his apartment. You’ll be seeing the apartment exactly as you just left it—if you had Lucas wash his shirt, you’ll see the clean shirt. If you had Lucas take a shower, you’ll see Lucas with clean arms. Quantic Dream calls this the “Bungee Story”; actions that you take have a direct effect on the plot, and not in a yes/no way; the story will evolve and move in different directions based on the decisions you’ve made as one character.
But the potential for coolness doesn't stop there, sports fans. It seems the game also involves some psychological sophistication. You play four or five characters during the course of the game, some of whom are working at cross-purposes. How strong will your motivation be to clean up an apartment, the review asks, if you know that it makes it harder for your police detective character to succeed at their goal?
As long as the French company that designed the game (and, from its official website, has a pretty poor grasp of English, touting the game's "simplified and really intuitive interface that allows to do an infinity of actions through its unique interface") didn't write the game, I'm looking forward to it. I'll keep you posted.
June 10, 2004
The Uncanny Valley
In 1978, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed something interesting: The more humanlike his robots became, the more people were attracted to them, but only up to a point. If an android become too realistic and lifelike, suddenly people were repelled and disgusted.
The problem, Mori realized, is in the nature of how we identify with robots. When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don't care that it's only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike -- so close that it's almost real -- we focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge "the Uncanny Valley," the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it's bad.
(Here's a page with graphs to explain it, courtesy of one of Clive's commenters.)
Moving beyond the U.V., Clive's central thesis seems to be that video game developers' efforts to create ever-more-lifelike 3D characters has basically just given us a parade of scary, zombie-eyed skin-puppets. He sez:
Every highly realistic game has the same problem. Resident Evil Outbreak's humans are realistic, but their facial expressions are so deadeningly weird they're almost scarier than the actual zombies you're fighting. The designers of 007: Everything or Nothing managed to take the adorable Shannon Elizabeth and render her as a walleyed replicant.
Now, make no mistake: The Playstation 8 will be rendering characters so sublimely realistic, so human, that they make us feel like walleyed replicants.
But is that even a worthwhile goal?... Read more ....
May 19, 2004
Less Math, More Myth
FoS* Matt Penniman is writing a new weblog about games and game design with a special emphasis on the precursors to all our fancy Final Fantasies: pen-and-paper role-playing games.
His latest entry talks about the prosaic ways that gods are handled in RPGs, e.g. as normal characters with really high "stats."
That practice has extended into the digital age. Final Fantasy games always end with a battle against a) someone who wants to be a god, b) someone pretending to be a god, or c) a god. And invariably -- even though these omnipotent foes have 45-zillion "hit points" (ah, the hit point: irreducible unit of life in RPGs) -- you end up killing them.
Reducing deities to game terms (which bear a striking resemble to legal language) is a sure way to suck all the life and mystery out of an encounter with the divine. For a certain style of play, this degree of specificity can be useful -- but I vastly prefer the approach that says, "The gods work in mysterious ways. Mortals cannot fathom their powers and practices."
What would a game with truly mysterious gods look like? Here's a notion: There'd be conversation, not combat. You wouldn't kill God; you'd trick Him, or make a deal with Her.
You know, like in Greek mythology. People were always yanking Zeus's chain, right? And setting up weird bets with Hades.... Read more ....
May 10, 2004
Too bad while Robin's in L.A. he won't be able to catch the sold out performance of selected works from the score of the Final Fantasy video game series, by the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
I've talked before about my love for Final Fantasy IV (II in US), but how could I get away without mentioning my love for its music? Before video games could signal emotion with actual, recognizable facial expressions (when "faces" were a few murky pixels on a 16-bit, or God forbid, 8-bit screen), the music heroically took the place of the visuals in directing us how to feel. This was usually a bad thing, of course -- those midi files always teetered on the edge of being cloying and obvious.
But especially with the music of Nobuo Uematsu from Final Fantasy, the themes often had a beautiful subtlety to them. And I think Uematsu did some of his best work in Final Fantasy IV. The game's story was so wonderfully over-the-top -- it was honestly the apotheosis of epic in 16 beautiful bits. Pick a theme, any theme, it's in there. The quest for ultimate knowledge -- Adam and Eve and the Manhattan Project ("I am become death, destroyer of worlds") -- played itself out in Tellah's quest for Meteo, the Spell to end all Spells, and the "King of Baron's" pursuit of the sacred crystals. Folly of the elderly leads to the death of the young? You know, Daedalus and Icarus, Romeo and Juliet -- look no further than Palom and Porom, the pint-size twin magicians who turn themselves to stone to save the other adventurers, or Anna and Edward, the young pair whose love is sacrificed to Tellah's fury. Oh, and there's a ton more -- the quest for self-redemption, avenging the death of a parent, you name it.
My point is that the music had to be pretty nimble to handle all this drama. Uematsu had to go from Wagner to Brahms in the blink of an eye ... and he did. Take, for example, what's probably my favorite piece of video game music ever -- the Red Wings theme. It's an anthemic military march -- in a minor key. Follow the melody as it crests and falls towards its sad, sweet high note, falls again into that ominous rat-tat-tat, then explodes into the dissonant, aggressive coda that doesn't really resolve so much as suffer a heart attack. Once you've got a handle on that melody, check out where Uematsu reprises it in "Suspicion" and the beginning of "Cry In Sorrow."
OK, I'm done showing you cheesy midi files. But clearly other people love Uematsu's stuff, too. This isn't the first time Nobuo Uematsu's work will be performed with instruments:
The first FINAL FANTASY symphony concert was held in Japan in February of 2002, performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The sold-out concert led to a six-city, seven-show concert series titled "Tour de Japon - music from FINAL FANTASY -" which will be held this coming March and April throughout Japan. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra also performed some of Uematsu's compositions in the Symphonic Game Music Concert held in Leipzig, Germany in 2002.
In February 2003, Uematsu formed a group called "The Black Mages," producing a self-titled album composed of FINAL FANTASY battle music arranged in rock style. Uematsu himself performs as the keyboardist.
As video games have gotten better at feeding you emotions through graphics, sometimes even through rumble packs, the music tends more towards subtle tone-setting with occasional moments of pop/rock, which is probably the stuff the L.A. Philharmonic will be taking on.
Another example of undeniable masterpiece in video game music: the theme from the original Super Mario Bros.
April 13, 2004
Playing By the Rules, But Whose?
In the libertarian mag Reason, Kevin Parker writes about the politics of video games:
... But as a political vehicle, games may have an inherent bias. Bridging an ideological chasm, libertarian Iain Smedley and socialist Julian Stallabras agree that computer games possess a native individualism. Writing a decade ago, Smedley noted the "heroic and individualistic philosophy" of video games, in which the player "does not merely cheer on the hero in [his] struggle; the player’s actions determine the outcome." Writing contemporaneously in New Left Review, Stallabras concurred: In games, "the passivity of cinema and television is replaced by an environment in which the player’s actions have a direct, immediate consequence on the virtual world." For Stallabras, this makes computer games "a capitalist and deeply conservative form of culture."
I do think Parker makes a good point about the rules embedded in games, especially games like SimCity:
Certain rules are embedded -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not -- in video games. What are these rules? The question may become a refrain, at least for perceptive parents and teachers, because games can communicate ideas not merely through exposition but through the experience of playing them.
Political economy is a natural frontier for gaming. As some PlayStation-savvy Marxists have noted, many games incorporate "simulacra" of work and exchange. (In postmodern jargon, a simulacrum is a copy of an original that never existed -- Disneyland’s Main Street, for instance.) We don’t slay the dragon or blast the alien just for the fun of it. There’s treasure in that thar dungeon or asteroid! Newer games are asking, What do we do with the booty?
Quite a bit. Multiplayer online games routinely feature emergent economies. Programmers, absorbed in the business of turning imagined ogres, grenade launchers, and nebular vistas into stable computer code, now find themselves puzzling over inflation, product shortages, and property disputes. Just how realistic the economic models should be is a topic of continuing debate. But at least one development house, Artifact Entertainment, actually hired an economist to assist with its modeling.
"PlayStation-savvy Marxists"? Cool!
I'm now slightly frightened by the specter of an age, decades hence, when the "common sense" argument for some new tax policy goes something like this: "Of course a tax cut will stimulate the economy! Didn't you ever play SimWorld on the Playstation 4? That's how you won the game, man. You had to drop taxes, especially on the rich."
(Thanks to Penny for the link!)... Read more ....
April 9, 2004
The point didn't need to be argued, but I was trying it anyway. I was attempting to illustrate my point to Robin that tech is the beat of the future -- technology increasingly informs everything we journalists journal, from the environment to foreign policy to ... gay marriage.
Only I was getting stuck on gay marriage. What does technology have to do with gay marriage? I briefly considered making a point about how maybe they'll come up with a way for men to have babies, but I thought better of it.
Fortunately, Snarkmarket-approved blogger and top-notch techie Clive Thompson has a much better imagination than I do -- and a better video game collection. He writes in Slate today about video games featuring same-sex unions.
Having created at least half-a-dozen gay Sims in my day, I'm definitely looking forward to some groom-on-groom action in The Sims 2. Er...
Thompson takes it one step further with a glance at the long, wonderful history of console cross-dressing.
How is it that the average gamer, whom I tend to think of as an adolescent boy (and thus casually homophobic by default), is so open-minded about the sexuality of his pixelated avatar?
File under: Fairy-Tale Marriage, Video Games
March 29, 2004
I Want 'Holy Crap' Moments
At this year's Game Developer's Conference, Warren Spector, the guy behind the game Deus Ex and others, talked about video games and stories:
For Spector, open-endedness is not the be-all, end-all. As a story design widens out to a free-form system, he argues, the "emergent narrative" (story that's partially created by the player, rather than completely designed by the developer) ends up with a relative lack of direction and emotional resonance. There are fewer exciting, "holy crap" moments, since the narrative can't be designed as easily to flow towards those moments as effectively.
Now, you could make the argument that video games shouldn't be in the business of telling stories at all -- leave that to books and movies, right? From my point of view, at least, games shouldn't just be fancy computerized novels. (Or, you know, if they are, I'll just read the novel instead, thanks.)
But they should be a fancy computerized way of having fun, and it may be that, more often than not, experiencing a well-engineered story is more fun than exploring an open-ended world.
I'd like to hear somebody riff on this. Somebody who, say, defends open-ended video games. I'm looking at you, Matt Penniman!