Friday, September 30, 2011

Blog Admin, September Edition

Just a few notes.

  • I had a blast being part of The Border House's inaugural podcast recording session last night, and I look forward to that going live whenever it does.
  • I helped out my friend Liz at Liz Tells Frank again... I'm sure everyone here knows what game I was describing.  ;) 
  • "Let's Talk About Sex" was reprinted at GameCritics and at The Border House
  • A version of "On Gaming Death" has been frontpage featured at Bitmob.
  •  The busiest time of the entire year for me at Day Job is the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October.  I've been working overtime and having weekend obligations (weddings far away, etc) and so there's been very little gaming or writing time.  Apologies.  I hope we can return to our regularly scheduled programming in mid-October.  I like blogging much more than I like doing my day job, but only the latter gives me a steady paycheck and health insurance.  ;)
  • That said, I'm working on a piece for myself about Bastion that's more fun than I thought (like the game and its soundtrack), and I'm working on two pieces for other outlets as well.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Win, Lose, or Fail

A bunch of gaming writers have recently cycled back around to one of the most foundational questions of our art.  No matter what perspective each of us prefers, no matter which lens each of us uses, down at the bottom there's a single question even more important than the perennial argument of "Are games art?"

Our core issue is this: what are video games?

Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer launched this most recent salvo with Games Aren't Clocks:

I say it's time to let go of our preoccupation with gameplay as the primary criterion upon which to evaluate a game's merits. It's time to stop fetishizing mechanics as the defining aspect of game design. Designers must be free to arrange their priorities as they wish - and, increasingly, they are. Critics, too, must be nimble and open-minded enough to consider gameplay as one among many other useful criteria on which to judge a game's quality and aspirations.

This caused a nearly instant rejoinder from journalist Dennis Scimeca at his personal blog, Punching Snakes, in which he asserted that actually, Games ARE Clocks:

Video games can afford to suffer some modicum of technical errors and still be playable – we routinely look past the regularly-scheduled bugs in Bethesda titles all the time without letting them ruin our fun – but if their mechanics are so broken so as to preclude play? Without play, there is no game, at which point nothing else matters.

I think the salient aspect of Abbott’s post starts midway through, when he expresses his frustration with the term “video game.” Rather than trying to redefine what the term means, in order to fit everything inside the same, comfortable box, however, I think we need new language entirely.

A few paragraphs later, he continues:

I might argue that The Sims has never been a video game, for the same lack of victory conditions. It is a simulation, a digital sandbox, and winning or losing has nothing to do with it. When competition ceases to be part of the equation, I think an object’s definition as a game should immediately be called into question. We don’t do this because even if we determined that “video game” no longer works as a descriptor, we have no fallback positions or options available.

It's an interesting debate, to me, because I think that in their own ways, both gentlemen are quite right.  Games are more than the sum of their mechanics, to many of us, and the word "game" is also loaded with connotations that may not apply to our modern interactive narratives.

Where I've gotten caught up, though, is in this idea of "winning" and "losing."  I don't think they've been the right terms to discuss game completion for a very long time.  BioShock isn't chess,  Plants vs Zombies isn't basketball, and Tetris isn't poker.  How do you decide if you're "winning" the character arc of Mass Effect, Fallout: New Vegas, or Fable III?

At its most basic, a game is something playable.  Whether it's got a story or not, no matter the genre, system, or type, a game is something that requires player input.  You, the consumer, are in some way integral to this experience.  Whether you push one button or speak a word into a microphone, whether you wave your arms at a motion sensor or deliberately hold still when you could act -- a game requires you to contribute.  That's the sum total of the agreement on our current definition of "gaming," and really that's quite a low bar.  Small wonder, then, that we keep looping through these arguments.
We don't just have a win / lose dichotomy anymore.  We do have completion and backlog; we have sandbox and short story.  But every title I can think of -- every title I've ever played and a thousand more I haven't -- has either a failure state or a success metric, and some have both.  Our metrics aren't necessarily competitive, and they might be imposed by the player rather than intrinsically by the game.  There are little successes and big ones, game-ending failures and completely surmountable ones, but every pixellated problem I've ever pounced on has at least one or the other.

(If at first you don't succeed, you fail.)

Writing about L. A. Noire and death in gaming back to back started me down the path of contemplating the failure state in general.  I hadn't really given it any thought before, but recently I've started to understand just how important it is.  Coupling the failure state with the success state (and no, they are not necessarily binary opposites) creates pretty much our entire dynamic of gaming.

Depending on the sort of player you are, this is either a total failure, or a smashing success.

While I was starting to muse aloud on this idea on Twitter, Mattie and Line challenged me with The Sims.  That challenge leads to a critical point: player-determined goals are still crucial goals.  Your Sims can fail at their own little lives: going hungry, getting fired, burning the house down, or getting dumped by SimSpouse.  But it is common to play the game aiming for maximum drama in SimLives -- so, the argument runs, those aren't failure states at all.  They're successes.  That's all well and good, but the players who want SimHouse to burn down still have failure conditions available: the scenario in which the house, in fact, does not burn down.  The standard failure and success metrics, as envisioned by the designers, might be reversed but there are still measurable goals present, waiting to be accomplished. 

To a certain extent, most success goals can be said to be player-determined.  What's true success in Peggle: beating the story mode, or going back for an Ace and a 100% on every level?  What's good enough in Tetris: getting to level 10?  Beating your own old high score?  Beating someone else's?  What's a successful play-through of Mass Effect: paragon, renegade, or somewhere in between?

Even in Minecraft, the most popular sandbox to come along in gaming since die were first rolled for stat sheets, there are successes and failures.  Both wear many faces, of course.  But success can look like this:

Image source:

And failure can look (comically) like this:

Creation and destruction are player goals, rather than creator goals, but the game itself is still a set of tools that enables the player to achieve those goals (building a nice house, which is the sum of many smaller goals) or fail in them (committing accidental arson while installing the fireplace).

A huge amount of our gaming, though, is deliberately narrative.  Most of the games that I play certainly are.  This year alone has seen me in Fable III, Portal 2, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Fallout: New Vegas, Bastion, L.A. Noire, both Mass Effect titles, and another dozen or two that I can't immediately call to mind.  These are all cinematic stories, designed with beginnings, middles, and ends; the mechanics of their telling are a vehicle to carry us from plot point to plot point, mainly via weaponry.

Stories don't have failure conditions, but they do have endings.  Story-based games often have clear fail states, though, and that's the game over screen.  Your character has died, or the setback you face is so adverse there can be no overcoming it.  Game over, mission failed, you suck at shooting bad guys so your planet is destroyed.  Go back to a save point and try again.

Of course, sometimes they're just kidding about "game over."

But a game like Mass Effect doesn't need to rely as heavily on the fail states (though the game over screen most certainly exists), because its relying on the player input to define the character.  We care about keeping Shepard alive in the face of certain doom, but we tend to care more about whether she aims for diplomatic solutions, or shoots a guy in the face.  A failure state in Mass Effect 2 doesn't look like the game over screen given to the player if a mission goes bad; it looks like being unable to keep one of your crew members loyal, or like being unable to keep one in line.  We're playing to achieve the successes, in whichever form we feel they take, rather than to avoid the failures.

Most narrative games don't take the "define this character for yourself" trajectory that BioWare titles are famous for, of course, but they still rely on that delicate combination of success and failure.  If you're playing Phoenix Wright, the game is completely on rails.  But it has fail states: you can press the wrong statement or present the wrong evidence.  You need to have a decent understanding of what's going on in order to make correct accusations and put the evidence together properly.  And you can get it wrong to the point of seeing a "game over" screen.  (Unless you're me, and save compulsively, and reload if you're doing badly.)  Success in meeting goals -- finding evidence, correctly questioning a witness, or surviving a cross-examination -- will advance the story to the next set of goals. 

Purple's the evil one.
My most beloved games of old literally do not have a fail state.  The classic LucasArts SCUMM-engine adventure games -- Monkey Island 1 and 2; Day of the Tentacle, Loom, and more -- were revolutionary in that the player literally could not get permanently stuck or die.  (As compared to the Sierra adventure games of the era, which were death-happy, or to older games like Zork, where you could waste hours playing on past the point where you'd already screwed yourself over.)  Rather than ending with failure, the games rely on continued success.  These stories have natural bottlenecks built in: the narrative will not continue until you figure out what Bernard should do with that hamster or how Guybrush can use the rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle.  There are items that need to be found, contraptions that need to be built, and discussions that need to be had in order for the player to progress.

In a sense, these games -- of which you could easily argue L.A. Noire is the most recent descendant -- are very proactive.  Reliance on cut-scenes is very low and mainly, non-playable sequences are just showing the consequences of whatever action the player just took.  The absence of a game over screen may remove a certain kind of tension from the story, but it also removes a major source of potential frustration for the player.

With all of this said, it's true that not every game has a visible set of goals, or any available success or failure metrics.  There are titles out there that deliberately subvert the very idea of success and failure states; this is where I would say the avant-garde of gaming truly lies.  From one point of view, The Stanley Parable has six failure states.  From another point of view, it has six success states.  What it actually has are six conclusions and ways to reach them, the ultimate meanings of which are left to the player.  None are particularly desirable (at least, of the ones I saw); nor is any one better or worse than the others.  An existential crisis in every box!

The Path is another art game that subverts the idea of success and failure states.  There are six player characters; each girl has a starting point and is told to go to an ending point via the given path.  The game, such as it is, happens in the experiences along the way; the journey is the destination and the destination is incidental.  Grandmother's house is more of a concept than a crucial place to be.

One of six sisters finding maturity, sexuality, and experiential horror between home and Grandmother's.

The avant-garde exists deliberately to undermine the tropes and tools of our media.  That's what it's for, and I have long thought gaming would truly come into its own as an art form when a thriving independent and avant-garde scene could generate new ideas that would, in time, filter into mainstream development.  Film history and the histories of other arts have evolved along this path, and evolving technology and the ubiquity of distribution venues (i.e. the internet) have now made the production and release of art games common.

Aside from deliberately subversive arguable non-game experiences like The Stanley Parable (see Line Hollis for links to and reviews of more obscure art games than you can imagine), I don't think I've ever played any interactive digital experience in the "game" category that didn't have either some kind of failure or some kind of success built in.  Even the visual poem Flower partakes: you can't really fail (I was dreadful at using the motion controls, but as I recall you just keep trying, except perhaps for the stormy level), but as with a classic adventure game, you do need actively to succeed to continue.

If a game had absolutely no success metrics or failure states in any form, whether intentional or untentional, direct or subverted, dictated or player-driven, would it still be a game?  Maybe, in the same way Andy Warhol's Empire is still a film.

So, after all of this, we come back around to Dennis and to Michael.  As much as I think Dennis is wrong to assert that these digital experiences we all enjoy aren't "games," he's also right.  That is: we have to use the existing vocabulary for the time being, even if only to transition away from it as our discussion evolves.  We've only got so many words right now, and we -- players, critics, and designers -- need to be on the same plane to communicate.

But is "video game" really the right term for the transcendent, new immersive-media experience Michael seems to covet?  As long as those experiences have discrete goals, and as long as player input determines the failure or success of those goals, I think we can use the words we have.  We have a while yet to revisit our lexicon; I hope we've decided what to call the experience before we get to the point where the Holodeck actually shoots back.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hardcore Scrabble

I tend toward perfectionism, I admit, and toward completionism.  These are (especially together) nearly as often failings as they are virtues.  Still, we all have our own issues and despite my drive toward achievement I tend to shy away from competitive games; I don't like to get into contests that I have no chance of winning.

It's not that I need to win all the time; rather, it's an awareness of my weaknesses.  I'm an overweight asthmatic with a bad knee; I wouldn't enter footrace unless I planned for some reason to place last.  I do enter trivia contests, because at least there I have a chance to rise or fall on my own merits.

This means there's a genre of gaming I tend not to tackle.  I stick to single-player games, whether narrative or competitive, or occasionally to cooperative multiplayer games.  I don't want to put myself in an us-vs-them situation either on my own merits or as the weakest link of a team.  Competition is, of course, easiest with the gaming partner who lives with you, but I'm particularly adverse to competing against my spouse.  It's a level of marital discord that I simply don't need.

But speaking of my spouse, thanks to deals on sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, we manage to get away once or twice a year on little, inexpensive-but-lovely B&B trips in the region.  (There are rather a lot of picturesque country getaways within a 3-hour drive of Washington, DC.)  We take these trips as a time to unplug, but sometimes find ourselves with some quiet afternoon or evening time to fill.

As it turns out, nearly every B&B on Earth seems to have a Scrabble set somewhere.

Not a euphemism: we play Scrabble on vacation.

 Here's the thing I like about playing Scrabble with my husband: we're both terrible at it.

I'm great at thinking of words, but without the right tiles in hand or the right spaces on the board on which to put them, it doesn't matter.  Meanwhile, his strategic sense is better than mine, but I have an unerring ability to steal exactly the letter he was going to build from on his next turn.

We're both awful.  And we're matched 2-2-1 over the last year's worth of trips, from Labor Day weekend 2010 to Labor Day weekend 2011.  And we both stay awful, and thus the games, while competitive, remain fun and not hostile.

Here's the thing about gaming: we really are all designed to overlearn the system.  It's just how games and players work: we look at a system and then we dismantle and master it.  And it's something each of us does methodically (though methods vary), up until the point where the pleasure wears off.

That "splort" is so damn satisfying.
When the pleasure wears off, some of us quit.  I don't tend to play Fruit Ninja much on my phone anymore, because I reached a mastery plateau: incremental increases in high score take far too much play time, and suck the fun out of the attempt, making it instead a grim, pulp-covered death march to the next "correct" move.  Others double down and find a new pleasure, in the competition itself.  When you've mastered the game, you no longer derive joy from your own high scores -- pssh, of course you're awesome! -- but from knowing your score beats others.

When the going gets tough, some of us go for a walk outside and some of us plan to become national champion.  It takes all sorts.

When we talk about "casual" gamers vs "core gamers," I don't actually think we mean the type of game each camp enjoys.  There are Boggle and Scrabble players who will absolutely school you, and who make it their mission to do so.  Somewhere out there, there's someone who's gotten a 100% and an Ace on every level of Peggle and Peggle Nights.  In EQ2, there are folks out there who are so hardcore into the crafting system (and just the crafting system) that they know more about it than the dev team does.  And no matter who you are, someone out there is way more into (and better at) Wii Tennis than you.  Meanwhile, there are folks who play Call of Duty once or twice a month for fun, gamers who pop into World of Warcraft occasionally just to chat with buddies, and players who don't care about their KTD ratio in Halo or Counter-Strike.

When we collectively talk about gamers and gaming, though, we tend to separate the "casual" and "core" gamers by their preferred genre.  There's a definite dismissive attitude ingrained in the culture: "Mom's not a real gamer, she just plays Facebook games."  And yet, what if she plays them consistantly, constantly, to a point of true mastery?  And of course, even a competitive PvP game isn't really good sport if girls are winning.

From my point of view, I think one of the biggest challenges we have in talking about gaming and gamer populations comes from our whole really being made of two halves.  This is where the constant (and somewhat exhasting) ludonarrative debate comes from, among critics and writers.  In short: when we talk about games, are we talking about their rules and forms of mastery, or about the stories they tell?  Both, or neither?

Seriously, more time on animation than on fighting.
On the one hand, we have a physical challenge, one that can be mastered and set aside.  But in our biggest games, the skill or reflex mastery comes paired with a narrative that has to run its course regardless of the player's level of accomplishment.  For the first half of Divinity II, the fights are too challenging; for the last third, they're far too easy.  When starting a Japanese-style party-based RPG like Chrono Cross, fights begin as an elaborate process that you can have difficulty learning -- but then, aside from bosses, descend into farce, taking up your time with repetitive intro and outro animations and fanfares.

A film director can and does control the pacing and delivery of the entirety of his product.  A game designer has more trouble with the pacing.  If a game is strictly, 100% linear with no deviations, it's a niche product: an interactive novel, or the game-film.  The tautness, delivery, and coherence of Heavy Rain varies depending how you play it.  One way it's a thriller; another way, it's slightly disconnected; a third way, it's a drama.  In the end, though, there are a total of four characters and 12 endings, and so David Cage and Quantic Dream are able to shape it to their whims.

There's only one way to play Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and only one way to play Uncharted.  But there are a dozen ways to play Mass Effect.  Can BioWare forsee that I'm going to go search every planet and complete every side quest in the galaxy?  Can they predict which one I will finally skip?

For me, of course, the answer is back up there in the first sentence: I tend toward completionism, and will perform, and try to master, every skill a game sets before me.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have to start a New Game Plus in Bastion.  It has these proving grounds, you see...