Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Live" Blogging the Endless Setlist 2

Here at Thwomp Factory we decided to ring in 2009 by playing the Endless Setlist 2 in Rock Band 2. Last Christmas many of the same people played through the original Endless Setlist, but this time it's 20 songs longer, and we're not allowed to pause (we went out to dinner in the middle of it last time). We're still optimistic that with ten of us, we can pull it off.

Since in the past we've randomly bumped start buttons every hour or so when playing, we've taped bottlecaps and dixie cup bottoms over the buttons on the guitars and drums. We don't have a wired controller for the singer's controller (the major flaw in our plan), but we made sure the battery was fulled charged.

We're six songs in now and everyone is still going strong; that means 78 songs to go. We estimate we'll finish at 1:16 AM.

10:37PM: Whoaaaa, we're halfway there! And actually halfway, not the definition found in Bon-Jovi Algebra.

12:48AM: Less than ten songs to go! We had a DVD reading glitch that made the game literally stop for about 15 seconds, but as far as we know that doesn't count as a pause.

Not much has changed, really. We're dreading the last couple songs, but this is definitely tractable.

1:19 AM: Hot. Malted. Chihuahua pants.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Make Your Game and Play it Too

Because we like candy, and because she's German and the cover of the out-of-place box on the shelf promised a Hexenhaus, my girlfriend and I picked up a gingerbread house construction kit at the grocery store today. On the walk home she mentioned the resemblance between the cover of the box and Little Big Planet's art style.

HexenhausThe appeal of LBP and a gingerbread house (and some other toys, like Lego or Meccano) are much the same. The end product is something you really like - a video game, fancy candy, or a pirate-themed dollhouse - but it's even more fun because you've got some creative investment in it yourself.

It's a tricky balance thought. If you make something like Garry's Mod you get something technically impressive but without a lot of mass appeal. Garry's Mod is a fun physics playground but there aren't that many people that can take a raw physics playground and have long-term fun in it, let alone make a fun result for others. If you offer people a box of eggs, sugar, and ginger and see what they can do you'll probably get some nice cookies, but the number of people that'll make a great house is small, and the ones that can do it probably bought their own ingredients already. Given a box of generic primary color Legos with no instructions some people will do amazing things, but most will have more fun and make more fun things given a pre-built parapet or spaceship shell.

It's also easy to fail in the other direction. In Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground it was really fun to build out my dungeon, but then playing through it was some of the worst grindy dungeon crawling I've done in years. Fighter Maker videos are a perennial Internet favorite, but watching crotch-punches for a minute an a half is all the enjoyment you're going to get out of hours spent creating your fighters. It's like building a gingerbread house only to find it actually tastes like cardboard. And no one wants to get a Lego post office when you could play with whatever a wall rocket racer is, or launch dwarves at trolls.

Lego Catapult
Gingerbread houses, Lego, and Little Big Planet let you start with primitive pieces if you want, but also give you high-level tools and plenty of big pieces and examples to fall back on when your skill or imagination falter. They're also capable of producing things that are desirable independently of their personal creative origins. I think these are the two qualities that we're going to need to see in modding tools and level editors before they really catch on.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Don't Show, Don't Tell

When someone asks "Why is writing in video games so bad?" the standard response is failure to follow the writing maxim "show, don't tell." I'm not buying it anymore. From Donkey Kong's opening cutscene to Left 4 Dead's tutorial, there have always been a number of games that understand the importance of showing.

The point of the "show" directive is it's generally better at conveying emotions than telling. That justification is useful for figuring out when telling might be better than showing in a book or film. So approaching video games, we need to ask - do you actually get much more emotional impact from watching a prerecorded cinematic, even if it does "show" instead of "tell"? Final Fantasy IX had an unexpected level of maturity in the direction of its cinematic scenes, but to people who already didn't like Japanese menu-driven cutscene-heavy RPGs there wasn't much more appeal.

When it comes to games, we don't want to show or tell - we want to do.

Do, or do not.
"Show" is boring.

I play a lot of horror games, which is a genre that figured out "show, don't tell" long ago. But Baroque, a horror roguelike, managed to trigger more controller-gripping moments than any of the recent Resident Evil or Silent Hill installments because it does as much as it shows. The player is dropped in a grotesque confusing world and given choices you have no information about - but the character is in exactly the same situation. As the character's abilities and knowledge grow, so does the player's, a narrative feedback loop that complements the Japanese roguelike numerical growth loop. (Awesome graph from John Harris in @Play.) The character's emotions are easily translated to the player because the player is doing something similar to the character. This kind of opportunity is absent from a film, where there's no interaction (in Baroque's case, mostly exploration).

An example from a more mainstream game is James Clinton Howell's analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2. Dense enough I can hardly summarize it, it frames the game's timeline as the relationship between player objectives and avatar objectives. When Raiden is frustrated at his inability to kill Vamp so is the player; when Raiden is naked and powerless the player's choices at each encounter are reduced; when Raiden breaks free of his personal hangups the player's formal abilities change and grow.

How can this actually improve games that already do a good job of "showing"? The romance between Zidane and Garnet, the primary and secondary protagonists in FFIX, is one of the key plot elements. It's told with a surprising amount of subtlety and nuance for an otherwise by-the-numbers Japanese RPG. For most of the game the player identifies with Zidane, and so is meant to feel some degree of romantic longing/attachment for Garnet. But Garnet is a fixed object, and if spunky black-haired princesses aren't your type, that emotion is missing and Zidane remains "that guy I'm watching" rather than "that guy I'm acting as". If the player had some indirect control over Garnet's dialogue and appearance (through in-narrative cues rather than a "girlfriend creator" at the start), the attachment is more likely to stick.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Faith rennt

As usual, I am ages behind everyone else in commenting on this. (To start with, I almost forgot I had this blog!) But the Guardian article on Mirror's Edge and the Videogame Aesthetics article on (lack of) realism in art direction ended up in tab proximity in Firefox.

Suspend disbelief for a minute and consider Mirror's Edge to be the licensed game for Run Lola Run. Both works feature a desaturated but still bright palette, using red to highlight key objects to interact with. But the similarities extend beyond the art direction. Both use a conventional-unconventionally-attractive female protagonist; both have an environment, a city, as an antagonist as much as any individual person. Both have a thematic focus on repetition until perfection.

That last part interests me most, because that's the part where the game takes a theme of a movie and does something medium-specific with it. It doesn't borrow the plot and it doesn't borrow any characterization; it doesn't need to. What defines Run Lola Run as a film is the use of repetition for unique (relative to other films) visual and emotional impact. What defines Mirror's Edge is its use of repetition in its interaction, its focus on speed runs and time trials. When most games are advertising the depth of their dynamic worlds this is one that challenges the player - sometimes almost mocking - with the staticness of it. The mechanical essence of the film has been translated, making a game experience as fresh within its medium as the film did in its.

When Keith Stuart says
Because, if it were a movie, Mirror's Edge would be critically lauded by the specialist film press – it would be considered a forward-thinking masterpiece.
We don't need to consider it an "if" - Run Lola Run won over two dozen awards.

I guess this post wouldn't be complete without me chiming in about the game like everyone else did. Mirror's Edge is one of my favorite games of this year, but I think it copped out at the end. It's not the only game that started out combat-light and gave in during the climax, whether for lack of a better idea or as a concession to sexy trailers and mass appeal. Thief and Dead Rising come to mind as non-standard-combat games that stumbled at the end. Gun and Bioshock went from mostly freeform combat to a heavily scripted final boss battle that bore no relation to the rest of the game. I'd hold up Portal, Fallout 3, and Metal Gear Solid 4 as recent games that delivered a climax and ending up to the standards of the rest of the game while making them memorably different at the same time. A few false steps is no reason to discount Mirror's Edge - the game delivers what it promises, you just have to play through an hour or so of bullshit in the middle of it. Compared to the amount of bullshit you'll find in the middle of other games, that's nothing.