Hey friends. Before you vomit: this isn’t one of those “sorry I’ve been away but I promise I’m back now and I’ll try really hard to write each week” things.
Haven’t written here in awhile, because I’ve been writing exclusively for Rules of the Game, editing all the work there, and sending out hundreds of emails to PR companies to get review copies for people. Eventually the writers there will be able to write more efficiently, and I’ll be able to let the other editors take over some of the heavy lifting, and I’ll be able to write here again. Currently I’m wrapping up the second part of my MUD memoir, an analysis of progression and weapon design in God of War III, and an analysis of the first week of a 12-player Neptune’s Pride session.
I’ve also been crunching on my research assistantship, which, this semester, mostly involved archiving all of our departmental thesis and dissertation bibliographies in Zotero, making a research blog for a partnership between the ACM and our department, and making a template for faculty blogs. I’ve become slightly better at PHP and a lot better at graphic design, though I doubt I’ll be using those skills in the near future.
This summer I’m doing two neat things: writing book chapters and working as a game design intern at Area/Code, the company founded by Frank Lantz. It’s in Chelsea (in Manhattan), and I’ll probably be living in Washington Heights near where my parents met in the late 70s. I’m excited to go up there, as I haven’t lived in New York since I was six. There are a lot of family members and childhood friends that I haven’t seen in a long while, and it will be good to reconnect with them and guilt them into buying me dinner. It will also be fun to finally test whether my Master’s education has taught me any skills necessary to actually design economically-viable games.
Frank doesn’t think simulations are arguments, or he doesn’t think games are simulations (I’m not sure which, maybe both), so it’ll be fun to split hairs with him and Charles all summer. I also want to get my initials on some of the arcade cabinets at NYU—mostly the ones that Jesper Juul and Frank have high scores on.
Toward the end of my stay, in August, it’s possible that I’ll be able to get copies of Newsgames to do a bit of an author lecture at a bookstore (my friend Ryan works at one somewhere in the city). The book chapters I’m working on are both for Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press, a kind of experiment in electronic peer review. One is an expansion of my article on Final Fantasy XIII (by the way, thank you again to everyone who’s been linking it around the web, and to those who’ve criticized it and helped make the next draft a lot tighter). The second is an article about Train, expanding my discussion of it toward the beginning of my thesis. It’s been a pleasure to email Brathwaite with questions and ideas for the piece.
I’m not bringing any of my game consoles up to New York, so I hope to finally catch up on every single indie game I downloaded on my Windows partition and never got around to playing.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
This isn’t as cool as it looks. Tom rubbed off his “B.”
Atomic Games is here at PAX East. They’re not showing off Six Days in Fallujah. Instead they’re giving a sneak peak of (what I sincerely hope is) an early beta of their new XBLA project, Breach. It looks like and plays like a really ugly Bad Company without a crouch button (that I could find, anyway). Let me back up.
The only reason I walked up to this booth was because I forgot the name of Brink and thought for a second that it was called Breach. Tom Cross and I walked up to this booth for what I thought was Brink and began staring absently at a demo of not-Brink-but-Breach.
“Who is this by?”
I noticed that one of the boys playing the demo had the word “BREACH” fake-tattooed on his lower arm.
“What game are we looking at?”
A beautiful Indian woman walked up to me and Tom. I knew what was coming.
“Do you want a Breach tattoo?”
“No, thanks, I have real tattoos.”
“But they don’t say Breach, do they?”
(She had me there). “No, they don’t. But I really don’t need one, thanks.”
“They wash off.”
I realized at this point that I was being rude and that I should let her do her job. I was causing a scene. Jerry Holkins was standing a few feet away, asking what the hell this game was. I wanted very much to not be causing a scene in front of him, because he makes comics that make fun of people.
“I know, but, okay.”
I braced myself for what was about to happen. I knew that, as far as the physical sensation went, I would be enjoying myself. Once when I was in Paris I went to get my hair cut. The woman who volunteered her scissors was quite beautiful, and she smelled good, and she had auburn hair on her arms and her hands were soft. I knew it was going to be like that. But I don’t have a problem enjoying a haircut and having somebody whose job it is to wash my hair run her fingers through it with warm water and shampoo.
“Where does it have to go? Can I just put in on my wrist?”
I pulled back my sleeve, she grabbed my left hand. Her thumb pressed into the soft place in the middle of my palm, pinky to pointer bracing it from below. Her hand was warm. She asked Tom to hold her spray bottle.
“I don’t have three hands,” laughing.
That wasn’t a Shakti joke. I bet they gave her a script for this. The same script they give to the white girls. Tom took the bottle. She pressed the tattoo to my wrist.
“Your hands are warm!”
There’s no way she actually thought my hands were warm. I thought her hands were warm, which means that, to her, my hands had to be cold. The script again.
“Yeah, well, I’m wearing a sweater.” I turned to Tom, “I’m not wearing deodorant, they wouldn’t let me bring it on the airplane.” I was testing her, as if I were sitting at an ELIZA terminal or something.
“You didn’t have to tell me that,” eyes smiling.
That was her throwing an error and spitting out a default. After that, she didn’t have anything else to say to me. She took the spray bottle from Tom, gave my wrist a few sprays, and pulled the paper away to reveal the BREACH. It was crooked, because I guess I’d started shaking at some point.
“It was almost awesome,” moving onto Tom now.
While she was doing Tom, I asked her what company was making Breach. That’s when I found out it was Atomic Games. I asked if they were also showing Six Days in Fallujah this weekend, and that prompted her to go get a slightly older woman whose scripting authorized her to answer that question. It turned out the older woman was just a packet switcher whose job it was to find a man dressed like a soldier for me to talk to.
They aren’t going to be showing Six Days in Fallujah, because the game isn’t finished. They’re using the development of Breach to add new features to the Six Days project, “but the art’s all done and ready to go.”
I told him that I was really happy they were going to be releasing Six Days someday. He said that they’d gotten a lot of that lately. I told him that I was publishing a book in August about games that engage with the news, and that the Atomic/Konami fiasco featured heavily in our chapter about documentary games. And he gave me his card.
I looked at the card just now; it doesn’t even have a human’s name on it:
In 1997, Janet Murray published Hamlet on the Holodeck. It was one of the first attempts, from within the humanities, to gauge and classify the storytelling potential of the digital medium. Except for the notable influence of Brenda Laurel’s earlier research into computers as theatre, Murray drew primarily from the work of programmers and designers at Xerox PARC and DARPA. She combined technical knowledge with years of experience as a scholar of Victorian literature and science fiction. While recognizing a potential for the misuse of technology, she predicted a utopian future where we would co-create narratives of romance, danger, and exploration within a seamless virtual reality. This is considered a primary text of the “narratology” school of game studies, although Murray herself has always encouraged others to study games as distinct from their capacity to tell stories.
Murray explicated the four essential properties of the digital medium: it is procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.
Procedurality refers to the computer’s ability to execute code.
The computer is participatory insofar as it responds to input.
Spatiality means that the computer can model space and time.
The encyclopedic capacity comes from the computer’s ability to store more information than any prior physical media.
Murray’s discussion recognizes that procedurality is the medium’s unique and defining trait, but she gives them all equal consideration. She pairs off these properties to explain where complex structures in computing come from. Procedurality and participation combine to form interactivity. Spatiality and participation together lead to the navigability of virtual space (following the advent of the graphical user interface). Encyclopedic capacity and spatiality give rise to the field of information design, primarily concerned with organizing data to make it more transparent, accessible, and compact.
Read the rest of the post at The Border House.
The Judgement of Procedural Rhetoric by Simon Ferrari
Committee: Ian Bogost (chair), Fox Harrell, Michael Nitsche, and Celia Pearce (in absentiae)
Thursday, 18 March 2010, 1:30-3:30p
This thesis establishes a theoretical framework for understanding virtual spaces and roleplaying in relation to Ian Bogost’s theory of “procedural rhetoric,” the art of persuading through rule systems alone. Bogost characterizes the persuasive power of games as setting up an Aristotelian enthymeme—an incomplete argument—that one completes through play; however, I argue that the dominant rhetoric intended by a team of game designers is subject to manipulation through player choice. Discrete structures within the play experience cause the meaning-making possibilities of a game object to pullulate in a number of directions. Procedural rhetoric is not comprehended or created when reflected back upon after play: we interrogate it, piece it together, and change it through play.
If rules are how the designers express themselves through videogames, then the player expresses herself by forming a personal ruleset—a modus operandi or ethical system—in response to the dominant rhetoric. Furthermore, game space is not merely the place where this dialectic occurs; it also embodies a ruleset in the way it organizes objects and directs the flow of play. The thesis proposes a model by which games, which are “half-real” according to theorist Jesper Juul, can be judged intersubjectively—that is, in a way that accounts for the objectivity of their rulesets and the subjectivity of player experience. By fully understanding the dynamic between the three procedural influences of rules, space, and identity, we can learn more about designing persuasive game systems and enhance the possibilities of subversive play.
Required reading: Persuasive Games, Half-Real, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Video Game Spaces, and The Ethics of Computer Games
Core Ludography: Far Cry 2, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Left 4 Dead
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.
Two weeks ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology Digital Media program co-hosted the Art History of Games symposium with SCAD-Atlanta. The event opened with a panel by its three co-coordinators, Michael Nitsche and Ian Bogost of Tech and John Sharp of SCAD. They began with a number of provocative questions about where the art of games might come from: is it found in their visual elements, in their virtual worlds, in the creative exploitation of technology, in their design and programming, or in the activity of their players?
John Romero, famous for his work at id Software on early FPS games such as Doom and Quake, delivered a reflective opening keynote on some of the pioneers of digital games. He reminded us about the amount of work lost over time from Mozart’s oeuvre, cautioning the game industry to remember vital contributions from the many designers and programmers who have already begun to fade from popular memory. Later in the conference, he explained his thought process during the transition from false to true 3D engines. Another attending industry designer, Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog, inquired in a hushed voice, “Did you have any idea what your work would mean to us now?”
In their lectures, Celia Pearce and John Sharp both covered the representation of games throughout art history proper. Sharp focused on famous paintings that captured games as they were played by aristocrats. He highlighted the importance of swinging and guessing games in the sexual lives of young Europeans, contrasting this with the academic place of Go in Japan. Pearce primarily discussed how the Dada and Fluxus movements produced games alongside their experiments in performance and readymades. She also ran through a short history of independent game developers who strive to make art, asserting that “if you make something, and you call it art, then it’s art.” Marcel Duchamp factored heavily in both discussions, becoming something of a “patron saint” of the symposium
Digital Media PhD candidate Brian Schrank and his graduate advisor, Professor Jay Bolter, presented a model for the avant-garde in games, distinguishing between the formal and the political avant-garde in art history. The formal avant-garde questions the assumptions of mainstream art, while the political avant-garde confronts the place of art in society. Schrank holds the mods of Jodi, an art collective known for deconstructing famous games until they are unrecognizable, as the ideal of formal avant-garde games that manipulate the player’s flow state. The political avant-garde in gaming is represented by virtual world griefers and alternate-reality games, which call into question the magic circle that divides the “real” world from the games we play.
Jesper Juul of the NYU Game Center discussed competing efforts to arrive at the essence of games, dividing thinkers and designers across a spectrum between “purity” and (for lack of a better word) “subterfuge.” He associates purity with the procedural focus of designer Chris Crawford and the ludologists. Antagonistic to this are those who strive for immersion, or “those who want to hide the gaminess of games.” The scholarly impulse for this comes from Janet Murray’s ideal of the holodeck, while designers Chris Hecker and Clint Hocking manifest the approach through their respective focuses on the ludic contract and hyper-realism. Juul chose no explicit champion here, instead encouraging us to keep making theories and proving ourselves wrong.
Area/Code founder Frank Lantz managed to explain the mindset of a brilliant game designer without really talking much about games at all. He discussed the passions of Nabokov for butterfly collecting and of Wittgenstein for architecture, hobbies seemingly unrelated to the work they’re remembered for, that show us something about the way they understood and dealt with the world. It was an argument against the codification of games into art or even into a series of stock design patterns. Lantz explains that avoiding the “domestication” of games requires looking outside of the field for inspiration, embracing things that are messy, wild, and inexplicable.
Henry Lowood, a professor and archivist at Stanford University, chided academics for not taking a close enough look at the creative output of players. He controversially asked, “Who is the artist, James Naismith (the designer of basketball) or Michael Jordan?” He then compared Dr. J’s virtuoso around-the-backboard layup versus Kareem Adbul-Jabar to a famous Warcraft 3 match where the underdog, 4K.Grubby, won by using a defensive spell in an unexpected way. The “are games art” question holds little interest for Lowood, who reflected that over the course of the past century most people have come to distrust art while relying more and more on games in their daily lives.
Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales, the enigmatic indie developer of The Path and The Graveyard, announced the formation of a “Not Games” movement with four messages emblazoned across the screen:
GAMES ARE NOT ART
ART IS DEAD
VIDEO GAMES ARE NOT GAMES
MAKE LOVE NOT GAMES
Tale of Tales explained the initial disillusionment with the high art world that led them to express themselves on the web and through games. Unfortunately, their experience with games has left them somewhat jaded, because the mainstream industry fails to exploit so much of the potential interactions afforded by the medium. “We want you to know: we’re just as evil as you are. We’re just evil in a different way,” Samyn clarified.
The closing keynote came from Christiane Paul of the Whitney, who explained the difficulty of her work trying to get videogames and other interactive media into a gallery setting. She explained why technically significant, critically celebrated videogames often fail to make the “fine art” cut. Her work is a careful balancing act, attempting to introduce traditional museum patrons to the medium without going completely over their heads. Paul’s fear is that, without the archival support of museums, many important games will eventually be lost to history.
Accompanying the talks were a collection of commissioned games on display at the Kai Lin gallery. Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi combined their design and architecture backgrounds to produce Sixteen Tons—a game of tactical peg maneuvering with an added mini-economic dimension, played with heavy iron pieces and encircled by a beautiful paper wall. Their presentation raised the question: is the essence of Sixteen Tons in the design of its ruleset, in its architectural elements, or in the content of its social message about indentured servitude?
Jason Rohrer brought his new Sleep is Death, an uneven networked game with one player filling the role of an “actor” and another that of a “director.” This design mirrored his talk about the pipe dream of the singleplayer immersive, interactive narrative. Following an earlier argument by Michael Mateas, Rohrer argued that we should focus on interactive drama rather than a classical narrative arc. Tale of Tales unveiled their new non-game, Vanitas, in an installation crowned by a beautiful bell jar filled with the fragments of a shattered iPhone and a swarm of ladybugs.
Perhaps as a counterpoint to their argument, but really more close to exactly what Tale of Tales wants to see from the game industry, Brenda Brathwaite stole the show for many when she stood up and declared, “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.” Her Train was on display along the commissioned works at Kai Lin, and her speech covered her own mental processes while working on her “The Mechanic is the Message” series of games. Brathwaite shared details on her newest project, called One Falls For Each Of Us, about the Trail of Tears. One aspect of the design stood out as particularly memorable: in this game about displacing an entire people, you’re going to have to move one game piece for each of them.
That’s right: Brathwaite is currently hard at work painting 50,000 game pieces. She’s an artist, and she’s sensitive about her shit.
Are games art? Where is the art in games? Does it matter? None of these questions were answered conclusively. In fact, the presentations and commissioned works only served to muddy the waters. Which, as Juul and Lantz argued quite convincingly, is exactly what these events are supposed to do. At the end of the day, the field is better for all our confusion, wild energy, and playful theorization. We study and makes games, after all.
I should say that, all of the lectures aside, the most fulfilling experience I had was in meeting people I’d known online for some time but had never gotten the chance to talk with in person: Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, and Mike Treanor (to name a few). At the climax of the conference, a group of people descended upon my apartment to play Space Giraffe and make fun of Demon’s Souls. Those people were: Kirk Battle (LB Jeffries), Mike Treanor, Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman of GameLab, Jason Rohrer, and Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog. A good time was had by all, except maybe Zimmerman because I kept spitting on him and saying stupid things because I’m his biggest fan ever. Then a few hours later I got the AHoG stomach bug and threw up for the first time in over five years.