Saturday, March 29, 2008

Art In Games

About five minutes walk outside of Tokione - somewhat risky, but in my opinion worth it - there's an impressive art installation. A small room lifted about three stories up contains an enormous portrait-framed window. Looking out the portrait gives you a beautiful view of the forest, one that you probably ignored not 30 seconds ago while on the ground, even though it's more impressive from down there. It's a thought-provoking rebuttal to Edward Tufte's "depedestalization" - why shouldn't we use thousands of years of artistic experience to make beautiful things stand out, whether they be natural or artificial?

Of course, the other interesting thing about this piece is that it exists only on the fictional planet of Landroll, in the game Opoona.

Art is universal to human culture - not necessarily the same forms or themes, but the same drive to abstract, represent, and express creatively. But the worlds of video games are bereft of non-functional elements - like toilets, one rarely finds art in video games. Final Fantasy X has a country united in culture, by religion and by common enemy, and yet has no recognizable architectural, musical, or visual artistic movements. Mass Effect, another otherwise well-crafted world, expects us to believe that the only sculpture in the universe is one used to appease a wronged race after a war. How many games have entire palaces without any portraiture or sculpture? By contrast, the world-builders of Star Trek saw fit to create distinct styles of music, painting, literature, food, and even entertainment for each alien race, and writers like Mike Resnick or China Miéville flesh out their alien worlds with an abundance of equally alien art.

"Fictional art" is a great way to enhance a game world believably and creatively. Its forms can range from the above, to TV shows in No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, books (fiction and non-fiction) in Elder Scrolls games, and the theater in Final Fantasy IX. Wipeout features a huge number of fake corporate logotypes, and Contact even has fictional video games being sold in a fictional Akihabara! The converse is also true; missing or perverted art can add flavor to a dystopian culture. The state of Fort Frolic and Sander Cohen in Bioshock is particularly shocking because we know how art "normally" works, and how much it has been twisted in the game's world.

There's another side to this, and that's that video game worlds can provide a platform for art that might be otherwise inaccessible. Building an actual three-story-tall installation in a forest and keeping it up would probably cost more than Opoona did to make, be seen by fewer people (maybe not - the game barely sold 10,000 copies in Japan), and eventually come down. There's another installation in Innocent Life (probably not coincidentally also developed by ArtePiazza) which is a bunch of telephones installed in trees - where are you going to find an orchard to actually do that in?

There's a lot of unexplored possibilities. Where's the coffee houses filled with a new band every night (discs are definitely big enough now)? Or stand-up comedians? With the cliché cooking minigames, where are the great chefs in Breath of Fire? What music is playing on the Persona 3 protagonist's omnipresent headphones? Does Frank West look up to André Kertész? And when can Hyrule finally get some statues that weren't either built hundreds of years ago and/or turn into Armos?

Professor McClane and the Curious Villain

So I was originally thinking about titling this blog "Out of the Loop" since I like to think I am (refreshingly!) out of the loop on everything, and most of my posts would be about video games everyone else finished years ago. For example, I was many months late on the Guitar Hero sexism, and I'm even sad I missed out on the heyday of complaining.

But here's just how out of the loop I am. I just saw Die Hard with a Vengeance last night. It's Professor Layton the movie...or Professor Layton is Die Hard the video game. Amazing!

Who wants to write me some crossover fanfiction?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Video games are too long! Stuff costs more than it used to! Young people use curse words!

Next to me is a shelf of about 300 video games; I don't want to actually count because then I'd know how much money I've spent on them (during the course of editing this post I signed up for Backloggery). They've all been released since 2000 or so, the earliest it goes back is GBA and PS2. It's a large collection, but comparable in size and financial investment to the CD and record collections of audiophiles, DVD collections of movie buffs, or book collections of anyone who enjoys reading. What is different, however, is that those people have listened to their CDs, watched their movies, and read their books. Out of my games, I have beaten less than half. Part of this is attributable to the fact I like collecting things and overestimate my free time - I've got about a dozen books unread as well - but part of it is that video games are too damned long, and they revel in it.

The average video game length, for a single player storyline, is probably around 10 hours. Halo 3 was about 6; No More Heroes was about 15; Assassin's Creed was almost exactly 10. There are some amazing outlyers like the Final Fantasy series, which has clocked game times of over 100 hours for its past few releases. I've heard people lament that this is actually down from five years ago, when Playstation 2 games would average 20-30 hours.

I saw There Will Be Blood last month. It had higher production values, was more engrossing, and more memorable, than most video games I will play this year. It was "only" two and a half hours long.

At the same time gamers are complaining about the increase in game prices, and developers are complaining about the increase in production costs, video games are probably the most decompressed form of entertainment. They feature screen after screen of pretty pictures with minimal interaction, every blood splatter and stock crate carefully rendered and placed. The difference is, decompression arose in comics because it was cheap and effective. In a video game, it's neither.

Now, I understand the impetus for a long game. Games are expensive, and gamers want to get their money worth. But there are other solutions! First, games don't have to be expensive. Portal is the critical and commercial darling of last year, and clocked in around the length of a feature film. The content was polished the whole way through. Almost everyone who started it, finished it. It was only $20 (or part of a multi-game pack).

Dead Rising is six hours long (with an enforced time limit) but strongly encourages replays. Your first time through the game you will certainly miss elements, because of the sheer amount of things to see. The game can deliver its key narrative over the course of six hours, and so it moves quickly, but rewards players over tens of hours with a significantly different game each time.

These two games have something else important in common, as was pointed out to me by Ben Zeigler - in theater terms, they don't draw out their second act. In a traditional three act play - which most modern films and games are based on - the first act contains the exposition, the second the confrontation, and the third the resolution and denouement. These are split about 25%, 50%, and 25% respectively in film, but more often 5%, 94%, and 1% in games; the resolution is rarely more than a final boss battle, sometimes followed by a non-interactive video. Portal and Dead Rising both adhere closely to the filmic proportions, as do other games like The Darkness which has a lengthy playable exposition.

Another option is to take the approach older games did, which has less to do with balancing the narrative proportions or replayable content than making the game really hard. Contra 4 and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles brought this kind of play cycle back to store shelves recently, although certain genres like bullet-curtain shooters kept it alive in modern indie games since the 1980s. The games take very little time to play through, but require playing the levels over and over to memorize enemy positions and optimize plans and reflexes. The recent release of Triggerheart Exelica on Xbox Live Arcade to complaints of "I beat the game in less than an hour [after continuing 20 times], what a ripoff!" shows that there's not universal appeal here, but the sales figures on Contra and Castlevania indicate there's still a big market for people interested in high score tables. If people are having trouble they can always turn the game down to "easy" mode, at the expensive of some points and ridicule from friends.

There is a combination of both, the path taken by roguelike games. They are hard; not brutally hard on memorization and reflexes like Contra, but strategically challenging. Combined with the fact much of the content in roguelikes is procedural - randomly generated and different each game - an individual game may take a few hours (or less), but the player will play it over and over if your design is appropriately balanced. The fact you are already generating things procedurally means roguelikes are often amenable to straightforward mathematical balancing.

There is a final option I don't need to say much about, which is to ignore single player games. Few people talk about "finishing" an MMO or a game like Winning Eleven or Smash Bros. But the single player experience is far from dead. Bioshock and Mass Effect and anticipation for Metal Gear Solid 4 suggests this isn't the whole future.

All these options succeed in getting more people to finish games - which is to say, more people hooked all the way through your game, and at the same time giving a richer experience to players who want to put more time in.

What's a bad way to handle this? Look no further than Final Fantasy - any of them, although the latter ones are bigger offenders. These are the games where 95% of the time is in the second act, and even if you ignore sidequests it takes you dozens of hours. I won't rag on FF though, since that seems to be popular in the West these days. Instead, I'll beat on Mass Effect for the same reason. Optional sidequests are not the way to make a short main narrative but a longer game. First, the sidequests are content I am interested in, but do not differ significantly from the game mechanics of the main plot. The content could easy be worked into a generic corridor in the main plot instead of a generic corridor in a sidequest. Second, they do not change the experience, they just extend it. When I play Dead Rising through a second time, five of those six hours may be entirely new to me depending on where I go in the mall. When I play Mass Effect a second time, I have the same ten hours I already did, interspersed with another five new ones. Why can't I just play the new ones?

(There is actually a solution to this, which is to write a complex multilayered narrative like those which reward repeated reading of books or repeated watching of films. Amazingly, I think Final Fantasy X did this! But then the game is so ridiculously long it cancels that out. Most of the Metal Gear series succeeded too. No More Heroes is the best recent example; the second time through the game the dialogue and camera work is identical, but knowing what you do then it's a wholly new story. But I don't expect the game industry to suddenly figure out good writing overnight, nor am I sure I want it to.)

There is still room for the hundred hour epic game, just as there is still room for George R. R. Martin books or The Cremaster Cycle. Games like Disgaea or Harvest Moon are long because the goal of the design is to have the player become intimately familiar with the game, either mechanically or narratively. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. There is not a sufficiently large payoff in putting that much time into Mass Effect's or Eternal Sonata's systems, so I don't do it, or do it only grudgingly.

When you're planning the length of your second act, ask yourself if there's really forty hours of things to do, or if you just want the player to spend forty hours doing things. If it's the latter, they most likely won't anyway.

[Since I started writing this, Leigh Alexander published a similarly-themed article about "Completion Anxiety Disorder". She comes to some very different conclusions than I did, and looks at it from a player-centric rather than a developer-centric perspective.]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Real Games That Should Win Fake Awards

MTV Multiplayer has been running a series on the best video game animals that is set to become an epic battle near the end, despite the complete ignorance of Dogmeat. The good news is, there are plenty of other awards to go around.

Fallout, for example, can win best use of a licensed RPG rule system that wasn't allowed to actually name the system.

Best use of robot bees goes to Insecticide.

Most phallic objects goes to Katamari Damacy with every id FPS receiving honorary mention.

Most 100 level dungeons goes to Super Paper Mario, which has three of them, one of which you have to do twice, and another one you think you're going to have to do but they trick you. There are games with more, but this isn't even really an RPG!

Bizarrest in-game advertising goes to Dewy's Adventure, advertising Nestlé Aquapod, a product I have never seen or heard of before or since.

Best character name goes to GrimGrimoire for "Margarita Surprise", and also provides the runner-up with "Advocat".

You'd think most annoying fairy would go to Ocarina of Time, but that's because you've never played the real winner(?), Mad Maestro.

Most ridiculously long name is tough, with contenders like Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life: Special Edition, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates. Eigo o Taberu Fushigi na Ikimono Marsh, or Marsh, the Mysterious Creature That Eats English, makes a strong showing. But the winner by a mile is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army.

Incidentally, that game also wins most awesome Rasputin.

Finally, most hilariously over-the-top title that a game somehow manages to live up to goes to Space Invaders Extreme.

Friday, March 14, 2008

First Post!

Recently, Amy wrote about her patterns of active response to games. I, too, used to engage in this practice much more than I do now; I would assign personalities and motivations to the most inconsequential characters, preventing them from being unreachable, silent stars. Text-heavy games modified this impulse, but never did away with it. Is admitting to "self-talk" a trait that will still get me barred from future employment? My RPG heroes totally had all sorts of conversations. Setzer vs. Umaro on the nature of free will? Two tickets, please!

A tangent so soon? Perhaps editors have their purposes after all. Still, I play games differently these days. I'm concerned with what's canon, the extra plot elements that can only be revealed by Japanese people or Wikipedia, and interview comments made by the game's designer. The culprit, as with all of my problems, is the Internet.

As a tow-headed youth, I mostly played games by myself. They weren't something to be beaten before moving on to the next one, but an experience to be savored and explored for all they were worth before the rental period had expired. Guides were incomplete and difficult to obtain, so secrets were always popping up. Without knowing the limits of what was possible, there was always a black-and-white flecked frontier to brag to my friends about delving. They'd do the same thing, often taking me in with their slick lies about unlockable characters and pre-nude code shenanigans.

I'm drifitng, so here it is again: information overload has changed how I play. Gaming is a much more social activity these days. It's an undeniable fact that I talk about upcoming games, moan about the state of the industry, and post on video game-themed message boards more than I actually play games. Many games are just an excuse to banter with like-minded individuals. To reach this stage of meaningful reaction requires that there only be one version of a game. Interpretations need not apply, lest they get shelved under the column of "fan-wank." For any colaborative fan-work to get off the ground, everyone needs a common starting point, backed up with conclusive evidence. Not only is the game stomped, slaughtered, and demeaned, but it is subsequently exhumed for all final bits of whimsy.

Yeah, that's right: my first post here is also caught within calcified nostalgia. Clearly, games were better in the past because their two-bit story teams made me fill in the blanks for myself. Can I break out of this nerd falacy? A recent conversation on the merits of Super Mario Brothers 3 got me thinking.

When I first encountered Kuribo's Shoe, I took it at face value. A goomba was stomping around in it because it protected him from the countless dangers of the Mushroom Kingdom. I also wished to be protected, so I stole it from him. Stomping around in a giant shoe sure was fun. Stomp! Stomp!

Who was this Kuribo fellow, and how did three measly goomba each manage to accquire a portion of his invincible footwear? Were there giants in the kingdom who weren't part of World 4, but an ancient civilization? Was Kuribo a goomba hero, attended to by tiny cobbler-elves? Did Bowser's war-machine extend deeper into the fabric of the world than even I suspected? Either way, it was the ultimate power-up.

Years later, I learned that kuribo is just the Japanese name for goombas. That means that the goombas were wearing goomba-shoes, which is fun to say, but lacking in the same mythic resonance. I could write fanfiction or start a viral campaign to slip a more exciting interpretation into fan-consciousness, but it wouldn't be the same. Knowledge has ruined me.

Can I still enjoy deep immersion in a game? Sure. The best examples are games that attract little interest from the majority of my circle. Take, for example, Suikoden Tactics. The characters are uninteresting, the voice-acting is bad, and the plot is nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, I've been devoting a substantial portion of my nights to playing it. Why? It's relaxing; there's no pressure. I'm able to concentrate on the game's good points (of which there are several) because I don't need to worry about rushing through to avoid spoilers, attain a high score, or stay on the cusp of conversation.

It appears that I've created a division between social gaming and "pure" gaming. However, when I put it that way, I find fault with my words. I'll have to think about it some more, unless someone is interested in responding for me. An upcoming article on how all games have the potential for sandbox play, if you expand the boundaries of the game to include spectators and loved ones, perhaps?
Wow. I think Guitar Hero III might be the most sexist game I've ever played. And as a fairly straightforward beat game, it's not like they have hours of story and dialog in which to be sexist, so they must have really, REALLY tried to cram it into what little story and cinematics they had available.

Other than my guitarist, and the occasional female vocalist, I have yet to see a single lady in that game doing anything other go go dancers and arm candy for swanky pimpin' (male) record executives. Oh, and there are lots of those. All the other band members, roadies, club owners, deal makers, etc are all dudes. Oh, and in the animated cut scenes, You the guitarist are even a dude as well.

Please, GH3, give me just one female drummer, roadie, record label employee, or club owner. Actually, wait, no, please give me more than that. Roughly 50% would be nice.

Seriously, from what I know of rock star sex fantasies (which is a reasonable amount, I like to think), having 3 aneroxic, pseudo-asian subs in bikinis that cling to you constantly and never speak isn't really in the number one spot anymore.

However, I know sex sells and I also appreciate some good looking ladies with sex appeal in my video games, so it's not like I want that whole visual style eliminated completely. So, I'll conclude with a few better rock star sex fantasies about ladies that I think GH3 could have subtly tapped into in one way or another.

-The tight assed, curvaceous female roadie in black denim with tattoos all over her body (and you're just itching to see more) who's travelled the world and seen and done anything.

-The sexy, gregarious, bisexual bartender with loads of hot female friends who makes the strongest whiskey sour you've had so far on the tour.

-The hotshot new female record executive in the Chanel suit with the $1000 haircut who sips a martini while telling you she'll help your band get to the top...if you can please her.

See, GH3? In 5 minutes I came up with better examples of good looking ladies you could put in the background or cutscenes that are way hotter than your two identical go go dancers in black miniskirts and tight t-shirts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The politics of kissing

I'm about to look like I'm growing up, which embarrasses me horribly, but when I was younger (I mean at least 10 years younger and usually more) video games seemed much more magical. They may have been tiny, self contained worlds, but they really felt like entire worlds and even though LucasArts never programmed in what lay behind those bushes in Loom and Sierra never designed faces or wrote backstories for the entire ship's crew who must have died in King's Quest VI, you better believe I filled in all of that in my head. Not as some kind of creative exercise either, but it just naturally popped in there as the logical extension of what the designers must have intended.

Where am I going with this? After my first few years of the wonder that was video games, it became harder and harder to play games on that visceral level and as it became more of an intellectual activity (and that isn't bad, they've never stopped being fun.)

Chulip is the first game I've played in awhile that I haven't stopped to analyze even the slightest bit while playing it, because I'm too enchanted by it. This doesn't stop me from thinking critically about it later (y'know, since I'm doing so now) but from the moment I load my game I become too absorbed in their bizarre dialogues Stoo (my character) has with Yam (the love of his life), or the voyeuristic way he crawls into the giant pipe she calls home to watch her while she's sleeping (and the guilty feeling I have when I go inside and she's still awake), or spying on the Underground Residents, watching them talk about their menial jobs with their creepy Silent Hill-reminiscent bodies. The weird part is, mechanics-wise it's barely even a game.

Incidentally, the last time I felt that way about the game was right when Katamari came out. I remember myself and the room full of people I played it in were just too damn delighted to say anything about it except "Oh my god!" "That's so awesome!" and once and awhile "That's so weird!" between levels. And, it was awesome.

So, um, here's to games that are completely immersive while playing them, but still awesome to talk about afterwards!