Chungking Espresso

How To Write A Book About Games

Posted in Game Analysis, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on February 28, 2011


This is my informal, uninvited rant for the week of GDC 2011. A few months ago, I signed on to serve as a technical editor on a book project being undertaken by two of my favorite game designers. In order to help them on their way, I scrawled an early form of this article on a napkin. This isn’t meant to lambast any one book in particular; rather, it should be taken as a broad diagnosis of what happens when one begins a book with the idea of writing about games-in-general, perhaps with the goal of authoring a text that will be “foundational” to the field.

First, select your “-ism.” Google your “-ism” plus “games” to make sure nobody else has used this “-ism” already. If they have, and it’s the only “-ism” you’re familiar with, just find a synonym or portmanteau. This will define your entire project. It’s important that you’re absolutely in love with the way you write about your “-ism.” You don’t have any clue what your readership might be, so get a name from another field to write on the back of your book that you are “essential reading for anyone studying games.” Another viable strategy is to write about “Games and X,” with X being a bad paraphrasing of three or four thoughts from an old/dead white dude.

Open with World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is to game studies what Heart of Darkness was to your AP Literature exam in high school: it’s the perfect example no matter your “-ism.” Lay on us the existence of gold farming and the fact that Azeroth’s economy feeds into our own right away, because that’s heavy as all get out. Be sure to forget the difference between classes and races when you gloss “things you can play as.” Be sure to mention the number of hours you’ve logged in Azeroth; everyone will be impressed, really.

If you have to mention earlier MMOs, just say something about Everquest widows. This will serve as your segue into the topic of problem gaming. If you’re writing about game development ethics and practices, you can combine the subject of Everquest widows and EA Spouse into a subchapter titled “Widows and Spouses.” Pretend MUDs never existed, because otherwise you’d have to actually read something by Bartle post-“Players Who Suit MUDs.”

Within your first 20 pages, you’re going to need to type the names “Jenkins” and “Bogost.” Next, you need to find some kind of ridiculous reason to disagree with them, because they are the establishment, and you hate having to type their names. Popular choices include attacks against fandom for the former and claims of neoliberalism for the latter. Quotes from Raph Koster should be considered mandatory. But don’t talk about Chris Crawford, because then you’ll never finish your book.

Unless otherwise noted, these are the games you are allowed to write about: Halo, Grand Theft Auto (just pretend Grand Theft Auto III is where the series started and stopped), Civilization, Doom, Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and September 12th. No other game deserves more than one sentence (non-compound).

If you’re a male writer, cite vague feminist concern about both the game industry and gender representation in mainstream games. But, whatever you do, don’t acknowledge the vital contributions of female academics and designers including Flanagan, Taylor, Consalvo, Pearce, Brathwaite, Anthropy, or Laurel (and on and on). Instead, just copy-paste some ethnographic survey numbers. The older these numbers are, the better. Or, make some up: “.06% of female fetuses played Gears of War vicariously through their mothers in 2009.” Be creative.

Do mention Murray, though, because everyone loves Tetris. And because, if you don’t mention her, she will eventually find you, roll her eyes, and shrug.

Just pretend that fighting games and shooting games are the same kind of simulated violence. And only use examples from the latter, because none of your reviewers have any idea how fighting games work. Find some egregious quotes from over-caffeinated suits at a major publisher, to show how despicable action games really are. Then mention that the U.S. Military uses shooting games for recruitment and training, because nothing the U.S. Military has ever used or created could be seen as good in any way by anybody. If you talk about competitive gaming at all, pretend that it only exists in Korea. That way, you can derail the discussion with a rehash on problem gaming in PC bangs (they smoke cigarettes in those places!).

When in doubt, “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high.”

If you’re a neo-Marxist, certainly include a throwaway quote from Galloway. But don’t, under any circumstance, cite Wark. In contrast to his radical, expressive prose and brilliant digital peering scheme, the Word document that only you and your editor will ever see becomes unbearably depressing. If you were Ivy League-educated, be sure to disdain the upper middle class as constantly as possible. That will show daddy who’s boss now.

Inconsistent referencing is a must. Include hundreds of meaningless quotations from Nintendo and Sony representatives, preferably taken from the New York Times or Wired, to get your readers as hot and bothered about videogames as possible. But, when you make broad claims about how games work and what people do with them, don’t cite anybody. Especially not another academic.

At some point, you’re going to feel tempted to talk about how computers work. This is going to be a disaster if you try to go into any detail whatsoever. Instead, your mantra here should be “Moore’s Law.” Just type it out a few times, then scribble something about “artificial intelligence” and “graphics and audio” in between. You will need to mention that, at one point, computers used to fill entire rooms.

Woah, just think about it for a second. Woah.

Moore’s Law is actually an inverse metaphor for your entire project, because you’re essentially spinning a page-length abstract’s worth of new contributions into 200 pages.

You have to decide which Will Wright game to “critique.” Go with Sims if you’re looking for a wide readership. But if you’re writing this book about videogames primarily for nerds, do Sim City. Don’t even think about analyzing Spore if you’re valorizing hackers or modders anywhere in your book, because then you’d have to admit that most hackers, modders, and user-gen creators care almost exclusively about stuffing phalluses into every game possible.

Try not to normalize your spelling of common terms. For example, within any given page you should include all of these: “digital games,” “computer games,” “digital computer games,” “video games,” “videogames,” “games,” “hardcore,” “hard core,” and “hard-core.” Use the words “mechanics,” “rules,” and “features” interchangeably.

Finish with a note on your optimism for the future of indie game development.

Just kidding, you’ve never played an indie game. Go with ARGs instead.

Newsgames: Journalism at Play Now Shipping

Posted in Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on October 13, 2010

The book that I co-wrote with Ian and Bobby is now shipping from Amazon and MIT Press. I hope that the Kindle version will become available soon, because I know a few of you iPad users have renounced the printed word forever or whatever and love the idea of zooming in on my beautiful words with your grubby fingers.

Many thanks to everyone who has already purchased the book and to the people who helped make it all happen.

For those of you who are on the fence about the book and don’t find the back cover description entirely enlightening, some of the book’s first chapter can be read in this excerpt published by The Atlantic. As always, our blog contains many early arguments and stories that formed the core of the book (just search posts by category).

If you’d like to interview me, Ian, or Bobby about the book for your own website, podcast, or publication, just send me an email or leave me your contact info in the comments.

EDIT: As Michel notes in the comments below, the physical copy of this book is incredibly sexy. If you can’t tell from the picture: the dust cover is fused to the canvas cover of the book on the inside and for most of the exterior. The only exception is at the spine. This avoids the problem of having to choose between ruining the dust cover or removing it completely and looking like a pretentious ass.

Announcing: The Cartoonist

Posted in Newsgames, Projects by Simon Ferrari on September 2, 2010



The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of “newsgames” — videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Read the rest of the post here at MediaShift Idea Lab.

Win Win @ Cleopatra’s

Posted in Game Analysis, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on June 25, 2010

5.2.2 Structure as Literacy

Posted in Game Analysis, Papers by Simon Ferrari on April 7, 2010

This is a section from my critique of Left 4 Dead in my Master’s thesis, “The Judgment of Procedural Rhetoric.” I’m posting snippets here on my blog to drum up interest in the rest of the work. If you’d like a copy of the full document, please email me: chungkingDOTespressoATgmailDOTcom (because of copyright issues, please make sure to give me your full name and your website when you send the email).

Anybody familiar with the work of Anna Anthropy might recognize this as an introductory attempt to do for 3D maps what she does for 2D maps.

Structure as Literacy

Left 4 Dead alternates narrow interior spaces with open exteriors. While moving through the interiors, players often have multiple distinct avenues to choose from. These multilinear spaces encourage exploration, but they also have the potential to feel like mazes that disorient and separate players. It is also difficult to see upcoming dangers when indoors, as special Infected have numerous ways to hide themselves around corners or behind objects until they are ready to strike. The exteriors, on the other hand, provide better visibility and a single general axis of motion. These spaces afford strafing—the ability to physically pan sideways around an obstruction or threat—but they typically funnel the player to a single ultimate destination. In exterior spaces, disorientation comes primarily from partial decreases in visibility due to foliage or detritus.

In order to understand various types of modular level design in Left 4 Dead, we will make use of a series of maps below. The blue line represents the most efficient pathway through the level. Red lines represent distractions from this optimal path. White highlights delineate accessible space, and white lines signify obstructions (some of which can be entered or climbed upon). Yellow lines in the fourth map signify the “scatter” pattern needed to survive Tanks during the scene’s finale. Yellow dots represent places to remain still during attacks from Hordes. One must understand a few things about the way the AI Director works in order to understand why experienced players would ever stray from the blue, optimal path.

First, items such as ammunition, explosives, pain pills, and med-packs can be scattered anywhere throughout the level. The Director decides which of these items to provide, then randomizes their location throughout the level. This selection and location process changes on each attempt at the level, meaning it cannot be memorized; therefore, the primary temptation to follow red lines is to look for these items. The major secondary causes of diversion are Witches. Passing next to a Witch usually ends in disaster, but they typically rest in places that can be wholly avoided by choosing a less optimal path. Our only purpose for even recognizing paths as non-optimal is that enemies never stop spawning in Left 4 Dead (except right before finales). The best way to minimize casualties—the implied goal of the game’s design—is to move at a constant pace, as a group, along the shortest path possible.

Figure 5.1 “Blood Harvest” Intro

Figure 5.1 shows the first level of the “Blood Harvest” campaign, which takes place primarily outdoors.[i] Players begin at the bottom of the map. The white dots at the beginning of the stage represent dense forest. Movement through the first half of the map often proceeds slowly, as the group clusters together to eliminate straying common Infected that come running out of the woods and onto the path. Boomers and Smokers hide among these trees, pulling players into the darkness or leading them astray through blindness. Midway through the level is a trailer, which sometimes contains medical supplies. Lingering here often triggers a Horde, exacerbated by Boomers that hide behind the trailer or off in the woods to the right. The final L-shaped sprint to the saferoom opens visibility but also threatens to pull the team apart as injured teammates lag behind. Play in this level is much more complex in Versus than it is in Campaign mode, because the foliage and surrounding ravines provide tactical opportunities for the Infected team.

This level is basically a “track”-type space in Nitsche’s dichotomy.[ii] This is one of the best maps for new players to run in order to learn basic mechanics. It’s early in the campaign, so it’s a straight, narrow line in an exterior setting designed primarily to set the mood and help a newly formed team build trust. It affords only optimal, unilinear movement. The one major distraction point (the trailer) is one of the clearest learning opportunities for players who don’t understand the importance of constant motion. Even if the team becomes mired in a Horde onslaught, they will almost always have enough medical supplies to make it to safety. It is uncommon for Witches and Tanks to spawn in this level, but if they do the straight bath forward or backward provides ample opportunity for escape and defense. We can conclude from all of this that track-type spaces are the best for developing basic literacy and team dynamics.

Figure 5.2 “No Mercy” Intro

Figure 5.2 is from the “No Mercy” campaign, which is typically the first campaign played by new players and the most popular Versus mode map; therefore, it mixes interior and exterior spaces to form another kind of tutorial. Players begin on the roof of the southernmost building, and they work their way quickly to the ground floor. Following an alley, the team exits onto a street. A witch typically sits right around the corner from where the alley exits out; there are also cars that will summon a Horde if shot. Players choose here whether to proceed along the street itself or through the building in the middle marked with red lines. Moving through the building will increase overall travel time; it holds a higher density of common Infected, but it also might contain health packs. Wrecked trucks litter the streets, creating little pockets of space to entice players away from the optimal path. At the end of the level, a staircase tempts players to linger just before the protection of the saferoom.

The brevity of this level makes it a relatively safe place to learn the tradeoffs between searching through cramped hallways for items and simply charging forward to the safehouse. Because there is only one mini maze-type space with clear entrances and exits, the consequences of slowing down are minor. The only significant danger of this level is the event of a Tank or Horde spawn in the street crowded with cars. Cars that can set off alarms are placed nearby the entrance to the safehouse, meaning that in the event of an accident it is fairly easy to beat a hasty retreat.

Figure 5.3 “No Mercy” Sewers

Figure 5.3 is the beginning of the third level in “No Mercy.” It begins in a series of warehouses connected by darkened alleyways. The way forward is obvious once one knows in which direction to move, but non-optimal paths through ancillary warehouses may contain health packs. Proceeding along the blue line, players enter a courtyard. At one end of the courtyard is a gas station that explodes when shot. Once again, trucks create pockets of space to distract players from the blue path. Right next to the gas station, at the yellow dot, is a forklift that slowly ascends to allow access to the rooftops. The forklift triggers a Horde, and players must run along the rooftops to get back inside at the top left of the map. Smokers, hiding in between the trucks, can easily pull players off the rooftops before their teammates know what’s happening. Soon after this scene, not pictured, is a figure eight-shaped sewer system.

This is a moderately difficult area due to the need to stop to raise the forklift and the added vertical element of running along the rooftop, where there is a hazard of being pulled downward by Special Infected. This forces the rest of the team to track backward to protect the fallen player, and it’s one of the most common causes of a wipe. Before coming to this level, players have already encountered a hard defense point where they must wait out a Horde in order to proceed, but the forklift is much more open and lacking in supplies than previous defense points. The rooftop shows how much more complex a level gets when verticality comes into play. Players must simultaneously keep an eye on enemies descending from up and over a higher rooftop while keeping guard on the Special Infected lurking below. This area primes the team for No Mercy’s finale, which occurs in a two-story building with an open rooftop.

Figure 5.4 “Blood Harvest” Finale

Figure 5.4 is the final level of “Blood Harvest.” Players proceed down a narrow railroad track and climb on top of some train cars at the end. The mid-point of this section often contains a Tank, which requires players to backtrack or ascend the car to the right marked by a red line. Rounding the corner, players drop down into a cornfield to trigger a Horde. Players only have to travel in a straight line to exit the field, but the corn obscures vision almost completely. Considering this is the end of the campaign, multiple teammates may be injured and limping. Enemies can attack from every direction, further disorienting the player. Exiting the field, the team comes upon a house and adjoining barn that serve as a base for the finale. Players can hole up either in the house or in the barn, but they’ll probably have to run circles around the house during two Tank phases.

The house and its surrounding open field are the closest Left 4 Dead gets to the “arena”-type space in Nitsche’s dichotomy.[iii] A tacit assumption is that, by this point in the campaign, the team has learned to work together. The conceit of the finale, wherein the team holes up against overwhelming waves of enemies, takes much of the burden of providing challenge off of the level design—explaining the use of a somewhat nonlinear space. There is also much less clutter in the final arena, emphasizing tactical fluidity.

With the exception of the winding, track-type map of 5.1, it is simple to identify the discrete rectangular shapes used to construct all of these levels. One can observe in most of them a sort of pulsing between interior and exterior, wide and narrow. Interior spaces tend to have multiple avenues of possible movement, but they also feature dead-ends. Exteriors generally only afford unidirectional motion, but all of these open spaces feature objects such as trees or cars used to distract the player from that single direction. When placed in sequence, these basic variations create a rhythm of attack and defense, motion and pause, and centripetal and centrifugal force upon the team’s unity.


[i] Image source for all Left 4 Dead maps: http://l4dmapdb.com/, modified.

[ii] Michael Nitsche, Video Game Spaces (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 173.

[iii] Nitsche 183.

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Hills and Lines: Final Fantasy XIII

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on March 31, 2010

Games are numbers, but not every game is about numbers. Final Fantasy has always been about a group of dynamic, known mathematical values coming together in unexpected ways to tackle a static, unknown mathematical value. The former is the team of player characters, and the latter is the enemy. The major difference between Final Fantasy XIII and every past entry in the series is that XIII harbors no illusion that it is about anything else. Final Fantasy XIII is not a story about two worlds, Pulse and Cocoon, standing in opposition. It’s a process of blindly ascending hills, hills carefully placed one after the other in a line to make sure that the climber always has what she needs to make it to the top of the next in sequence. And I can tell you, as someone who lived most of his life in the foothills of Appalachia, that Final Fantasy XIII is as good as climbing hills gets.

Hills

There is a subtle difference in the play experiences arising from randomizing encounters and explicitly designing each one. Within the history of the Final Fantasy series, two constraints are placed on how random encounters work. First, zones in the world or dungeon map are delineated, and only certain enemies can spawn within those zones based on the probabilities of occurrence and volume—in the opening area of the first Final Fantasy I might have a fifty percent chance to run into 3-4 goblins, a thirty-five percent chance of two slightly stronger wolves, and a fifteen percent chance of a powerful but solitary nightmare. Second, these encounters can be limited by the size of the monster relative to the size of the combat screen or zone. Two dragon-type characters might take up enough room on the combat grid (in 2D and 2.5D) or circle (in 3D) to prevent the occurrence of any of other enemy.

Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t randomize encounters, and the player sees every threat on the map. Each encounter thus becomes a conscious choice to confront the enemy head on, to sneak up on the enemy for a preemptive strike, or to run past the enemy. What is the value of randomizing encounters over making threats visible on the map? Variety is the spice of virtual life, or so the thinking goes. The two constraints detailed above generate a modestly robust amount of difference. The downside of randomizing is that it becomes harder to account for the player’s skill level (in fact, it seems strange that more JRPGs don’t attempt to numerically gauge this somewhat intangible property). This means that a system initially set in place to provide variety often ends up creating a grinding experience—one trades the player’s time for greater configurability.

“Grind” has become a naughty word in the wake of the Everquest widow problem. Some Western roleplaying games have attempted to deal with this problem through adaptive difficulty. But this fix has its own pitfall: the elimination of any serious challenge to the player. In a Bethesda or BioWare game, enemies simply take longer to kill as the game wears on. The player is never pressured to develop novel strategies or skills. A new time sink appears to replace the old one, and, considering the amount of people who claim to enjoy the gentle massage of the grind, it is unclear where the moral high ground for designers might be. Final Fantasy XIII does away with these problems altogether by compelling its players through a tightly-designed obstacle course. Its literacy model is not built into the hundreds of tutorial and help screens; rather, it resides in the carefully staged progression of combat encounters.

Final Fantasy XIII’s “paradigm” system is a natural combination of the series’ earlier “outfit”-based systems in Final Fantasy V and X-2 and the “gambit” system of XII. The six combat roles are: Commando (primarily melee), Ravager (primarily magic), Medic (healer), Saboteur (debuffer), Synergist (buffer), and Sentinel (tank). The player only controls the team lead, while the two other active party members always take the optimal action given the party’s current state and known information about the enemy. Magic doesn’t cost mana, as it does in most games; it is simply an attack type, limited only by the time it takes to charge the action bar. Each party member is good at three roles, so there are around four viable party makeups (a combination of Fang, Lightning, and Hope being the most versatile). A paradigm is simply a script telling each of the three active party members what combat role to take at any given time. There are five slots for paradigms, which the player can customize in between battles. While in battle, the player can execute a “paradigm shift” to any of those five predetermined combinations.

The object of any battle is to “stagger” an enemy. When a Ravager inflicts damage, a yellow stagger bar slowly fills. Filling the bar both increases damage to the enemy and brings it closer to a stagger state, which makes it more vulnerable to afflictions and allows a Commando to launch it into the air (rendering it unable to attack or defend). Saboteurs and Commandos are the most important party members, because the stagger bar actually decreases over time. An attack from either of the two will slow down the speed at which the bar decreases. Many enemies, especially bosses, can only be significantly harmed while staggered. No battles actually require the use of a Sentinel, and the Synergist exists only to speed battles up. Many battles can be won without pausing to heal, but the Medic is almost always required for any key encounter.

Earlier I said Final Fantasy XIII is about climbing hills blindly. We’re now ready to understand what the two elements of this statement mean. First (“climbing hills”), the carefully staged progression of encounters steadily elevates challenge while teaching the player how to kill each enemy. A level will begin, say, with an encounter of two soldiers, then it will add a third soldier. Then the player will face, say, two slimes or a larger enemy such as a behemoth. After these smaller hills have been ascended, the final battle before a checkpoint will combine those enemy types: three soldiers and two slimes, or three slimes and a behemoth, etc. By slowly adding challenges and then combining different types of challenges, the game tests the tipping point where the player has to finally change her dominant strategy and develop a new cycle of paradigm shifts.

Second (“blindly”), every new enemy the player encounters has a data sheet explaining its strengths and weaknesses. This sheet always begins blank. When an enemy uses a special attack, one of its strengths gets entered into the data sheet. As the player damages the enemy with magic and melee, its weaknesses gradually become visible. Filling out the data sheet is vital, because AI teammates act on the best available information. The player can also spend a special, limited resource called “technical points” to use Libra. The player can only ever have five TP, and Libra costs one. These points are also used for summons and to revive the entire team in the event of catastrophic loss. Libra is a shortcut to the natural, gradual discovery process; it automatically tells the player most of the enemy’s weaknesses.

In past Final Fantasy games, Libra is a spell just like any other. I can distinctly remember never using it as a child playing Final Fantasy I-VII. If an enemy is aquatic, the player would assume that lightning spells worked best. If an enemy had a reflective barrier or can absorb fire damage, the player found that out naturally within the first few rounds of the battle. By making Libra a special ability, by separating it from all other spells, Final Fantasy XIII makes an argument about the essence of its system that was probably true of the series all along: the game is a matter of finding an enemy’s weakness and exploiting it. This isn’t a groundbreaking realization, and it isn’t a unique way to build a signature combat system. Final Fantasy XIII’s beauty lies not in innovation but in its minimalism and transparency. It recognizes its genealogy and invites the player to study it.

The purity of Final Fantasy XIII cannot be overstated. Absent are many traditions of the genre, such as conversation with NPCs, a world map, and villages to visit. Those subsystems that do remain—treasure hunting, weapon upgrading, and shopping—exist as options to help along players of lesser skill. They stand in for a difficulty slider and for the need to grind. A player who lets the game teach her how it works need not upgrade a single weapon or even open a single treasure chest. Experience points are still important for upgrading basic skills and attributes, but the player doesn’t need to stop at any point to harvest them. Summon spells, a staple of the series, have lost their ability to turn the tides of a battle. Instead, each character in the game must at some point confront the summon beast (called an Eidolon) within. These battles, perhaps the most difficult in the game, serve primarily to teach the player how to think about upcoming boss fights. The Eidolon are depicted as vehicles (horses, airplanes, motorcycles) for player characters within the game, while for the player they are vehicles for more nuanced knowledge about the battle system.

Final Fantasy XIII argues that no player should be left behind, that no hill should prove impossible to ascend assuming a modicum of critical thinking. In order to make good on its dedication to teaching the player, it features incredibly little “setback punishment.”[1] After each battle, the entire party regains full health. Whenever a player fails a battle, she will emerge with full health right in front of the encounter that felled her.  This is what Final Fantasy XIII (left) feels like compared to last year’s Demon’s Souls (right):

Black lines represent progress without death. Red lines indicate time spent on a failed attempt at any segment of the game. Final Fantasy XIII proves that “hard” is not “the new good.” Gentle games have just as much to offer us as brutal games do. Difficulty, like everything else about a game, serves a distinct expressive purpose. Painstakingly clawing one’s way up a mountain isn’t “better” than joyously bounding over a hill. They’re just different.

Lines

The first twenty hours of this game ask the player to follow a straight line toward a checkpoint. At intervals of fifty to one-hundred paces, a group of enemies awaits. Floating treasure chests await after every fourth or fifth group of enemies. This corridor, perhaps the longest unbroken span of narrow, unilinear space in videogame history, argues that we’ve  been running in a straight line for a long time now. Although treasure hunting was an ergodic exercise featuring palpable setback punishment in the earliest Final Fantasy games (we all remember the first cave containing enemies who can inflict Poison in Final Fantasy I), by Final Fantasy V the danger of exploration had given way to a culture of completion. The player is expected to find everything, so everything is easy to find. The decision to explore or not, represented in Final Fantasy XIII by the floating chests, has always become a matter of whether or not any given player is the kind of person who welcomes momentary distraction.

It has become increasingly common to see others criticize linear games for their linearity, without any effort to discern what the difference between good and bad linearity might be. An example of engaging linear space is the train-hopping sequence in Uncharted 2. The modularity of a train lends itself to constrained difference. The designer of the level has a few binary values to select for any given car: is it open or covered, is it a platforming challenge or a combat challenge (the latter being further divided between assault and stealth), is the arrangement of obstructions symmetrical or asymmetrical, and, if the car is covered, can its roof be reached and traversed?

Once each of these binary values has been determined for the individual car, one must arrange relationships between each car in the string. This creates a rhythm, which can be punctuated by unique scripted events—the helicopter, the “boss,” and the heavy gunner on the log. All of this goes into describing what amounts to nothing more than a line, and a line is in no way deprecated by the fact that games can, as computational works, support other lines (and an opportunity for the player to choose between them) if its designers want them to. One of the values of identifying core pleasures of a medium in the first place—agency, immersion, and transformation in Murray’s original account—is that the withholding of these pleasures can be used for the purposes of creating challenge, intrigue, variation, or expression.

Once one understands what a good line looks like, it becomes much easier to see why the first twenty hours of Final Fantasy XIII constitute a rather boring line—structurally speaking. There is no reason to create obstructions within, or alternate paths through, this space, because interacting with space isn’t a value or strength of the JRPG. Environmental puzzles have always felt strange within the genre, especially in games featuring random encounters. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out how to shove a boulder from one end of a cavern to another with enemies interrupting every five paces. Golden Sun might be seen as the peak of confused JRPG spatial design, with its absurd reliance on pillar-pushing puzzles and point-and-click adventure guesswork.

In the context of some JRPGs, environmental manipulation makes sense. These are almost always games with such a large cast of playable characters that splitting them into groups for solving interlocking puzzles in key dungeons provides an engaging diversion from standard play. This works in the case of Final Fantasy VI’s Phoenix Cave and final dungeon. The encounter rate on enemies was low enough, and the cast massive enough, that dividing the heroes into three parties to solve puzzles made sense. There was also a limited variety of puzzles that changed things up without being too confusing: the player could either push or pillar or pull a switch, which might trigger the shifting of a platform or the dispersal of lava. The same party-dividing conceit doesn’t work in the more contemporary Lost Odyssey, which features a smaller cast, only one party-dividing and puzzle-solving dungeon, and only has one puzzle type, which we might call “push the transporter over the cliff.” Final Fantasy XIII features a small cast of characters; it splits the party up for a while, but the player can’t switch back and forth between them; thus, environmental puzzles have no place in the game.

Final Fantasy XIII released in Japan at around the same time that Mass Effect 2 released worldwide. It should come as no surprise that both of these series transitioned from a previously multilinear level design to one of unilinear, non-interactive corridors. For years, the makers of this kind of game were told that they needed to embrace the computer’s ability to produce nonlinear game spaces. “Open” worlds of various quality proliferated, and players received hours and hours of “content” defined by the exploration of structureless, monotonous space. Everyone quickly realized that, perhaps, not every genre needs to maximize every affordance of the digital medium. This particular brand of stat-crunching, combat-focused game works just as well in a corridor as it does in a sandbox. It is also possible that many designers weren’t ready to leave the comfort of the line; designing a nonlinear space demands knowledge of the line in much the same way that abstract painting demands a grasp of representation.

And that’s the realization that the designers at BioWare ended with when they sat down to design Mass Effect 2. The designers of Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, took the realization one step further: the shape of their game spaces could be used as spatial allegories. In the melodrama tacked onto this brilliant game about blindly ascending hills, two worlds (and the two factions of demigods ruling over them) called Cocoon and Pulse exist in perfect opposition. Cocoon, ruled over by the Fal’cie of the Sanctum, is a bounded sphere where humans are simultaneously provided for and controlled in every conceivable way. Hannah Arendt would identify it as the ideal centripetal totalitarian state, one in which the government controls a populace by dominating rather than destroying its public space.

Pulse exists outside Cocoon, or below it, or around it—exactly what their spatial relationship to each other might be is vague, but Cocoon appears to be some sort of moon orbiting the planet of Pulse. The Pulse Fal’cie determined that their world would be a laissez-faire one. It is simultaneously beautiful and deadly, a place where human civilization collapsed while demigods and beasts roam free. Pulse’s absolute freedom, though, is a farce. The Fal’cie of Pulse exert a centrifugal totalitarian control, the manipulation of their human servants through the destruction of a shared public space. In the minds of Square Enix’s English localization team, this world connoted Australia. They probably did this because of Pulse’s geography and extreme wildlife. By doing so, they happened to connect the divine management of Pulse to the troubled history of British imperialism. Fang’s and Vanille’s brands become convict stains.

This story of two worlds is overwrought. One can only be thankful that it is only half-delivered by Final Fantasy XIII’s myriad cutscenes. The other half of the story must be gleaned from information files generated after each cutscene. Or, if the player is smart, it can all be ignored; every cutscene can be skipped, every data file left unread. Grasping the conflict between Cocoon and Pulse requires neither video nor text, because their respective spaces structure play in a way that lets us experience the difference between them firsthand.

Reviewers of Final Fantasy XIII remark that the game “gets better” or “truly begins to shine” when the player hits the 20-hour mark. That’s when the player transitions from Cocoon to Pulse. We trade a series of stifling hallways for a wide, open world driven by the kind of hunting quests that dominated Final Fantasy XII. In Pulse, it is somewhat difficult to find one’s way to a definite goal. Many enemies will instantly kill the player’s team on being engaged. The literacy model carefully constructed throughout the first half of the game flies out the window. Instead the player is left to fend for herself, to pick her battles and hope for the best. She has left a world where everything a human needs is provided by divine stewards, entering another where the demigods have decided to let natural selection reign. This is a conceptual map of the spatial difference between the two:

One can forgive reviewers for not communicating how carefully the distinction between the two worlds has been constructed. We are, after all, conditioned to make judgments about a game world through its story. In the case of the Final Fantasy series, we’ve come to expect that this story will be delivered through elaborate cutscenes. And the cutscenes in Final Fantasy XIII tell players little about these two worlds. We might ask a negative reviewer: how would you, without words, convey the feeling of living one’s entire life on a string? We can accept that it isn’t necessarily fun to be forced to endure twenty hours of running in a straight line just to have a fairly simple truth bestowed upon us, but we aren’t children anymore. That so many have complained about the game’s linearity is a sure sign of the design’s success. Life in Cocoon is something worth complaining about.

Conclusion

Final Fantasy XIII is a game about numbers. It asks the player to blindly ascend a sequence of hills, in a line, up until the point where it sets the player free. It does so for the expressive purpose of make the player experience firsthand the difference between total determination and complete freedom. Final Fantasy XIII teaches its player how to gauge the strengths and weakness of each type of enemy, then it asks them to adapt to various arrangements of different kinds of enemies. It argues that the Final Fantasy series has always been about this sensing process, the conflict between known, dynamic numerical values (the heroes) and a single, static number (the enemy). Final Fantasy XIII is a game that eschews grinding, adaptive difficulty, and a difficulty slider. Instead, it argues that the traditional subsystems of treasure hunting, weapon upgrading, and shopping should exist only to help players with lesser skill. Anyone who lets the game teach her how it works needs none of these. Its possibility space is narrow, as much a series of puzzles as it is a game. But it’s a good series of puzzles.

Swap Adjacent Soldiers to Make WAR

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on February 24, 2010

You’ve got to hand it to Capybara: they released two of the best “smaller” videogames of 2009 within a few months of each other, and both happen to belong to a genre that I for one had been totally through with. You know a game type has officially reached saturation when Kotex makes their own clone, but Capybara proves that match-3 still has some life left in it after all. Critter Crunch combined the descending action of Space Invaders with a novel “food chain” matching mechanic to great effect. Clash of Heroes, on the other hand, tries its hand at providing an alternative to the Puzzle Quest-style match-3 RPG. This is a game created for everyone who, like me, devoured Gyromancer and Galactrix last year but were left feeling cold.

Clash of Heroes is a DS title, so you wouldn’t expect it to match Critter Crunch’s pristine HD visuals. But you also wouldn’t expect this game’s crude sprite art to satisfy as much as it does. It would be interesting to see how much money was spent on producing these two games, because it seems entirely possible that Critter Crunch (which costs roughly one-forth the price of CoH at retail) was the more expensive of the two projects. I wouldn’t say the look here is charming; it’s basically a bunch of low-pixel soldiers and demons who can only face one direction even while walking. Graphics hounds will be somewhat non-plussed during the opening scenes, but once they start strategizing they’ll quickly cease to really care how the game looks at all.

The game is divided up into independent vignettes following the tribulations of one of five young warriors whose parents have been slaughtered by a demonic horde; therefore, there are five types of armies: elven, knight, undead, demon, and “mage” (think Aladdin’s Jafar, not Gandalf). Each arc follows the same basic pattern: slowly build up your army, make your way through a short quest supplemented by bounty hunting missions on the side, and wrap things up with an incredibly well-designed boss fight. Just when you’re sick of using the same units and scanning the rote dialogue of one spiky-haired anime-type, the sequence ends.

You can read the rest of the review here at Sleeper Hit.

Colorbind and the ideal of direct manipulation

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on February 19, 2010

Colorbind is one of those rare iPhone games that would be completely uninteresting with any other interface, yet is an absolute wonder when you start sliding your fingers across the screen. I would recommend watching a child play with construction paper just before starting to play Colorbind, because you’ll instantly be able to feel how close the tactile sensation is to the real thing. It’s kind of like videogame ports of boardgames: you get all the fun of weaving multicolored paper ribbons together without the cleanup or the papercuts.

The mechanics are simple: grab the end of a piece of paper and drag it toward a node; if you need to turn, simply pull the paper tab sideways to fold. A few rules of weaving make the game challenging right off the bat: if a paper strand of a one color, say red, is crossing the node of another, say blue, then the blue strand will have to cross that node vertically to properly eliminate it. Also, one strand can’t fold on top of another, and a strand can’t weave through another that’s been tightly twisted. The puzzle is complete once every node is eliminated.

The closest iPhone game I can think of to this is Chaim Gingold’s MinMe, which is one of the few casual timefillers that I return to again and again whenever I’m on a bus or cannot sleep. Colorbind definitely knocks the king out of his throne, so to speak, because of its many improvements over the “slide to eliminate nodes of like color” formula. In MinMe there is basically always one correct “answer” to the puzzle, while in Colorbind there are usually quite a few different ways to match everything properly. What’s astounding is that, no matter how you solve a puzzle in Colorbind, your solution will always be beautiful. This is positive feedback on the level of chaining a massive combination in Bejeweled or Puzzle Fighter.

Play itself is somewhat contemplative, because the difficulty ramps up rather quickly even on Easy (there are three difficulty levels, by the way). Colorbind will have you twisting your phone or pod around in circles, mirroring your mental struggle to understand how you must twist a particular strand of paper to allow room for another to slide through in the proper way. In this way, the game’s pace is close to my other favorite iPhone game: Zen Bound, with which Colorbind also shares a sparse, almost melancholy soundscape (all you really hear is the sound of crinkling paper).

Finally, the way you progress through the game is incredibly open: as you complete one level, the next level to the right AND to the bottom become accessible. This is how one of the better indies of last year, A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, unlocked levels, and the feeling of freedom and customizability this affordance adds is nothing to take lightly. If you can’t beat a level, you’ll almost always see that there are four or five others that you can try instead. Your literacy with how the paper twists and wraps grows quickly, and within a few minutes you’ll be able to go back to that level and see the answer immediately.

Colorbind makes you feel like an artist, albeit an artist back in elementary school.

Disclosure: App purchased by the reviewer. On sale for $.99 until February 25th.

Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on January 25, 2010

When I finished Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond to sit down and write this, I was the 12th ranked Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond player in the world. This does not bode well for Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond. The game begins with a joke about how you can find the first Matt Hazard game in a bargain bin near you. I remember, around a month after that game came out, printing a coupon to purchase it at Best Buy for under ten dollars. The coupon remained on my desk for a week before I threw it away.

Blood, Bath, and Beyond has been out for a few weeks now, and from the leaderboards it looks like less than four hundred people have beaten it. When I was sent a review code for the game, it had already been redeemed by someone else. I’ve talked with another game critic who had the same experience. The PR person distributing these codes is a very nice person. When she sent it, she enthusiastically told me to be sure I checked out that I can steal a partner’s life in co-op and that there is a difficulty setting called “Fuck This Shit.” These are decidedly inconsequential features (what game of its type doesn’t let you steal a partner’s life?). Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond is a game that knows it’s got two feet planted firmly in the grave, shouting this fact from its narrative, to its design, to its publicity.

The only thing strange about all of this is that, for the two hours that it lasts, Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond is a solid run-and-gun shooter. Two summers ago, the XBLA catalogue hadn’t really picked up steam yet. One of the best games available on the service at the time was a crappy port of Super Contra. I played it every day for around a month, even though the amount of fun you’ll have on any given playthrough is determined within the first few seconds: did you grab the scatter shot, or did you miss it? Blood, Bath, and Beyond isn’t nearly as difficult as Super Contra, and it doesn’t have the benefit of nostalgia going for it. But if you’re a fan of Super C with a hankering for the old bird, who remembers that your twitch isn’t quite as honed as it used to be, Blood, Bath, and Beyond might just be the perfect thing to scratch the itch.

You can read the rest of the review at Sleeper Hit here.

Divinity II: Ego Draconis

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on January 20, 2010

2 Corinthians 6:14, Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?

Divinity II: Ego Draconis
is what happens when two unequally yoked ludic partners get drunk, throw their focus on factions to the ground like so much discarded clothing, and make a baby. From Morrowind we get compelling characters, an impetus toward unlocking the inner divine, and a strikingly vertical level design. And from Two Worldscome the tedious hacking-and-slashing, rambling trajectory through quests, and a bevy of technical issues. It’s a thirty hour-long game that hides its innovations behind fifteen hours of CRPG schlock and loading screens that tease you about the thrilling mechanics you don’t have access to yet, and when everything finally falls into place you may find yourself feeling that the best of the experience came too little, too late.

This game exists within the middle of an unfinished trilogy. Divine Divinity, the first entry in the series, holds a special place in the hearts of some, but I haven’t played it. This didn’t present a major obstruction to my ability to understand what was going on. The creators of this fictional universe were Dragons, and for centuries they enlisted human stewards of their goodwill by passing on a bit of their draconic essence. Somewhere along the line, a rogue organization called the Black Ring corrupted the son of a prominent Dragon Knight. Another organization, called the Dragon Slayers, rose in power to combat what they mistakenly identified as the evil impulse in the world: dragons. You begin the game as a Slayer, but I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that within a few hours you find yourself becoming the last living Dragon Knight.

You can read the rest of this review over at Sleeper Hit here.

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