July 28, 2008

Cover Me

Marketing is a mysterious science. What reaction is the back-to-camera/serious-stare-over-shoulder pose supposed to elicit in the subconscious? Why do audiences respond better to helmets and guns than headbands and sticks? Did Beyond Good & Evil suffer in the American marketplace because Ubisoft elected for a different cover that highlighted the chestage area? We may never learn the answers to these questions.

July 24, 2008

Please Shut Up

The two most artistically striking Western games in the press right now suffer from the same problem. I wonder if games like Call of Duty: World at War and Alone in the Dark look at Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge as glamorous movie stars. And if, like anyone who's ever snickered derisively at a Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson interview, they affect an intellectual superiority upon the discovery that the pretty girl is pretty vacant.

Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge both appeared uncommonly beautiful up until the point when they opened their mouths. It's disappointing that these two games, so bold and creative on one front, have so quickly revealed the quality of their writing to be uninspired and trite. I wish they'd never said anything. I'd like to have clung to their initial promise for as long as possible. The dream is over.

The Prince of Persia is the worst thing about Prince of Persia. In this gameplay video, the Prince hops, skips and jumps his way through a lovely rendered environment, stopping occasionally to lazily opine in the boring snark of a low-rent Diablo Cody. Uncharted's Nolan North reprises his role as Nathan Drake, delivering the following lines in a detached drawl:

"Why do we always have to go TOWARDS the bad guys?"
"Don't say it's quiet! Don't EVER say it's quiet!"
"Of COURSE not! That would be far too simple!"

When Ubisoft sat in the marketing meeting that was all about the trending popularity of the brown/grey/black/brown Gears of War look, they shook their heads firmly and went with something different. But when marketing clicked over to the next slide: "Irreverence: it's what's in!" everyone leaned forward intrigued.

The lines above are flat-out not funny. They're not even trying very hard to be clever. Ubisoft are instead trying to emulate the slick, off-hand cool of a different kind of genre at the expense of their own game's aesthetic. Here, the voice actors and the dialogue are the worst fit imaginable. For the setting, obviously, but also for the style they want to recreate. "Why do we always have to go TOWARDS the bad guys?", that would be the oft-referenced Okami and ICO influence at work, then? It's a common complaint actually that the one thing ICO lacked was the spunky quips of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The debut Mirror's Edge trailer presented a game all about the visceral first-person experience, without an obstructive narrative. The soundtrack was limited to the character's breathing, her footsteps and the wind rushing by, accompanied by an oddly low-key and evocative piece of music. Trailer #2 fixed all that.

Instead of suavely unwrapping its story like a Portal might, Mirror's Edge takes a big narrative dump right on the lawn. All the mystery and wonder in the first trailer is promptly resolved, and unfortunately the answers don't seem like much fun. The game that will draw the industry's greatest praises for innovation and charm -- and, to a degree, very justifiably -- is marrying its dazzling aesthetic with writing like this:

"They've taken my sister. Framed her for a crime she did not commit. And now they're hunting me. But just because I don't have a weapon does not mean I can't fight back. So now I'm coming after whoever is behind this. On the edge of the city? You find out who you really are."

Nowhere in the world, however? Do you find out why these creative minds are so smitten with derivation. In this preview, producer Owen O'Brien describes how he fell in love with the DVD commentary for the movie Serenity and how that became the genesis of the Mirror's Edge story. Serenity writer/director Joss Whedon had this to say: "The empire isn't evil -- it just thinks it's right and can't understand why people wouldn't want to live by its rules." Mind-blowing insight for anyone whose literacy tastes run all the way from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings.

The Prince of Persia is a sassy ass-kicking hero and the heroines are smart, but not afraid to be sexy either! Everyone wants to be Joss Whedon. Everyone wants to be very serious about game design and making action games smarter and daring to be colourful and different, but at the same time, these people are the ones reorganising their Buffy DVDs and thinking "wow, that's deep, I wish I could write something that good." I wish you would try. When these games are what pass for the innovative and the risk-taking, what is the point of anyone doing anything. Instead of writing and acting, let's just paraphrase Firefly lines we remember fondly and cast Nathan Fillion in everything.

We can all do better.

July 22, 2008

Video Games Are The Silver Bullet

[Read big serious responses to my big serious post. Only at Big Serious Games a.k.a. Gamasutra.]

What makes learning fun? Check with any demographic that's high school age or younger and the answer will probably be "nothing." School is where we are introduced to the idea of learning as a regulated process, and it is expressed to us there as a punitive contract. Oftentimes we try to learn because we fear the consequences, not because -- especially not at an early age -- we have a Jeffersonian zeal for knowledge. Rare and precocious are the self-made seven-year-old scholars, and the rest become combative and reluctant when faced with calculus and biology. The truism we learn the best is that learning is work. That's even the case with ostensibly enjoyable subject matter. Kids are smart and they sense that To Kill A Mockingbird is really about writing essays and delivering presentations. Put any great work of literature in a class of high school boys and watch it be diminished to to a laughable, pretentious relic. Few can appreciate a classic in that environment. The problem isn't with the novel or even with the intelligence of the boys. The contract of learning is the problem. In high school, they'll discover way more about chlamydia than they will about Keats. Students are conditioned to approach literature with entirely the wrong mindset.

The trick to enthusiastic learning is the trick. We need to have the right attitude; need to be in the right frame of mind to develop interests in art on its own terms and at our own pace. It's not necessary to instantly attempt a codification of its merits even when the art does not move us to speak. We grow up viewing classic fiction as homework first and art second. It follows that we like learning best when we don't think we're doing it. We like literature more when there's no studying involved. What better medium for learning, then, than that apotheosis of anti-intellectualism, the video game?

We can learn a lot from games in ways we cannot from more traditional avenues. Simply by virtue of being entertainment, of course, video games automatically bypass defences against intellectualism. I posit that there is more to it. Certain games are in a position to take advantage of gamer psychology peculiarities and have players happily engage with potentially educational themes. The game's intention is probably not to teach, and the player's intention is certainly not to learn, but it will happen nonetheless.

Educational video games are represented on a broad continuum. Educational and Serious games, those that are exclusive to school computers, are one thing. Mass market puzzles like Brain Age and Typing of the Dead are one more. Another thing entirely is high-profile, sophisticated games like BioShock, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Clearly, they do not explore their political and philosophical themes -- objectivism; the war economy; the Middle East conflict -- at any level deep enough to substitute the video game for a university education or even the introductory paragraph of a Wikipedia article. They are not academics, nor comprehensive, nor credible. Graduates will boast that their college professors were Cornel West, John Rawls and Michael Abbott; no one will cite BioShock, PhD on their thesis. Compared to video games like Big Brain Academy and Darfur is Dying, however, BioShock and Metal Gear Solid have the potential to be better teachers.

They have a captive audience. At present, the psychological climate of gamers is both frightening and alluring, but it is, amongst other things, the right mindset.

Video games are an exceptionally diverse medium, but they suffer from a dearth of creativity within sub-strata. If one likes the fundamental gameplay model of an RPG, they'd better learn to to like fantasy and science fiction, because that's all they have. If one likes the visceral action of a shooter, they'd better learn to like World War II and... science fiction. If one has only a PlayStation 3 for gaming, they'd better learn to like Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. No one bought Metal Gear Solid 4 solely for Hideo Kojima's unique treatise on private military corporations and the war economy, but a lot of people bought it because it was a major title for the only console they own, and were looking to validate that original purchase. When Metal Gear Solid is the only game in town, the player is going to get very well acquainted with it. More still bought it because they were invested, via message board proxy wars, in the financial success of the PS3 platform. Metal Gear Solid 4, as a major exclusive title for a console which attracts relatively few major exclusives, evoked a great protective fervor in its audience that it would have done had it appeared simultaneously on Xbox 360, PC, Wii, DS, PS2, PSP, the iPhone, and the N-Gage. Or if there were a dozen other titles releasing at the same time -- on any platform -- with comparable levels of production, positive hype and potential for high sales. BioShock and Call of Duty were not exclusives but, as triple-A titles, they reached such a critical mass of excitement and press that guaranteed their voice would be heard, as hardcore gamers had to play them to stay in the loop.

1UP.com's Shawn Elliott wondered recently why Monolith's Project Origin generates less hype than Guerilla Games' Killzone 2, when Monolith has the better track record with F.E.A.R. and Condemned; more to show of Project Origin itself; and no major PR blunder like Killzone 2's "possibly real" pre-rendered footage at E3 2005. The disproportionate levels of enthusiasm are because Project Origin is coming to the 360, the PS3 and the PC. Neither it, nor F.E.A.R. before it are able to inspire the zealotry associated with flagship titles for the Sony consoles, which the Killzone series can enjoy. Killzone 2 has a dedicated audience that Project Origin doesn't, and so it has a chance -- that it shouldn't waste but probably will -- to talk about something important; to teach.

Guerilla, Kojima, 2K and Infinity Ward have gamers right where a teacher would die to have them. Gamers in the console war mentality are fastidious, enamoured and strangely protective of their subject matter, and hyper-attentive to every detail in every screenshot, press release, and NPD chart. They're primed to absorb information. These developers, of course, don't have a teacher's benevolence, and if their students are learning anything practical, it's because they're being manipulated. They won't, however, be any less engaged. This is condescending. Yet gamers are far more amenable to learning about private military corporations when the source is a crazy anime about clones and nanotech and not an international relations class they don't want to be in.

A TIME magazine article on Mark Twain had Yale law professor Stephen E. Carter observing that "Twain melded his attacks on slavery and prejudice into tales that were on the surface about something else entirely. He drew his readers into the argument by drawing them into the story." BioShock does the same thing. Twain's intellectual subversion, however, is rendered inert when his books become part of the classroom.

We're not in a classroom. We're in an arena of spectacle, and while we bemoan all the fanboy bullshit, the hype, the perfect scores, the jaw-dropping graphics, all these little things that are so symptomatic of the race to the bottom, they are still what secures our attention, and that's the first step. Imagine if that compulsiveness and fanaticism ever translated to those high school English students, who'd form an appreciation society around Huckleberry Finn; ready to defend it to the death. Developers have never had a better opportunity to found their game on real-world subtext. At the moment we don't see the mainstream video game as preachy, or work, or a lecture, and so we will listen.

This is the same phenomenon which spontaneously ignites in three million gamers an interest in fitness. Is Wii Fit attracting fitness buffs, or gamers interested mostly in the Wii, and with gaming trends? Thomas Jefferson would have read all the airport thrillers he could have got his hands on if only they had existed.

Narrative-heavy video games are almost exclusively airport thrillers. Some of those airport thrillers, though, like Metal Gear Solid, like BioShock, like Call of Duty, touch upon serious issues, perhaps introducing the very concepts to a certain fraction of their audience. These games are not didactic -- they're entertainment, first and foremost -- but, at their best, serve as the preamble to an appendix of further recommended reading. Call of Duty 4, however subliminally, can make gamers more interested than they previously had been in the current Middle East situation, and from Call of Duty it's George Packer and Thomas Ricks and Seymour Hersh, and from there it's so much closer to actually doing something about it in the real world.

Call of Duty is not a history lesson. It doesn't need to be; in fact it needs to be so little. All it has to be is that fleeting spark that lights the fire. To be sure, it will sound bizarre to remark, while shaking hands in the White House, that this was all made possible by Call of Duty 4, that renowned catalyst for positive social change. Yet why should the indignity in that statement matter to anyone? Surely the ends justify the means. Video games can be gateways to higher learning. Is it idealistic? Sure. But the base repudiation of idealism is so often used as a shield against saying anything interesting. Anti-idealism is what keeps triple-A games generic, and the reversal of that trend should already be a good enough target.

Compare the social value of these games to that of Halo or Oblivion. They're just as entertaining, but they are not relevant to any humanitarian or political discussion, and are certainly not literary. The Wire and The West Wing will not reform government but they will challenge and galvanise their viewers. Now imagine if The Wire was one of five titles available for Blu-Ray at launch and how much larger a pulpit it would have. Blacksite: Area 51 had something provocative to say, but unfortunately for Midway and designer Harvey Smith, it wasn't an exclusive nor did it have the promotion or production of BioShock. Blacksite was marketed on its message (at least by Smith, and to a greater degree than Call of Duty or Metal Gear Solid) and that selling point was evidently not as exciting to gamers. The game, commendably, still said what Smith wanted it to, but it never reached the audience it could have, because subtext doesn't sell. It's the blood and the psychic abilities that draw gamers in. Sometimes teaching is like a magic trick. You need to hide the blackboard.

We still see video games, the commercial blockbusters, as entertainment first and art second. One can read as much into the philosophy of BioShock as they like, but it can still be experienced as just a fun shooter. In this narrow historical window, video games can make learning fun. They can be a podium for developers to share with gamers their ideologies; their interests; their bookcases. Shakespeare and Milton quotes read as superficial gravitas through overuse, but Deus Ex's inclusion of passages by the less-ubiquitous G.K. Chesterton surely spurred players to investigate Chesterton's body of work. That's the reaction that video games can shoot for but so rarely do.

It's not all about saving the world. We can still discover things like objectivism, Chesterton and BMI through video games. With the second Guitar Hero, Harmonix, then holding a monopoly on the franchise, had the chance to include whatever music they wanted; lesser-known bands that without Guitar Hero would never have drawn a massive audience of video game players. The tracklist could have been limited entirely to early-eighties post-punk because maybe that was what the developer happened to like. Even if gamers didn't think they would be interested in the music, they would buy it anyway because it was the only new Guitar Hero they had. They may have found in Mission of Burma or The Fall something that they liked, and have Guitar Hero to thank. Now, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises are bloated and over-exposed, and gamers might as well pick a SKU based on what bands they recognise, and never discover anything new.

In time, this will happen to video games at every level. There will be twenty games that look like BioShock and gamers will choose the one with the best graphics and AI over the one that is sort of a consideration of philosophy and society. Which is why it's important to act now. This is a call to developers. Ken Levine cared about objectivism and he said so. What moves you outside of games? What matters so much to you, but because you make shooters instead of social policy or literary journals, you never thought you the audience were receptive? Rock music? Mark Twain? Calculus? We're listening. Talk to us.

July 18, 2008


In 1995, the "immersive sim" developer Looking Glass flew in a man named Harvey Smith to interview at its Boston studio. Smith had recently cut his teeth as a producer on the game CyberMage at Origin Systems. They had previously published the Looking Glass title System Shock, on which Smith was the QA lead.

Some key members of the Looking Glass staff, including its co-founders, who were then prepping the game Terra Nova, picked Smith up from his hotel and took him out to lunch. These programmers and MIT graduates then walked with Smith back to the Looking Glass building, through the hall, through the lobby, and towards the door to the office, which had the words "Looking Glass Technologies" imprinted upon it and was opened via a keypad.

Before anyone could open the door, a programmer named Art Min held up his hand, stopping the group in their tracks, and said, "Wait. Harvey, what's the code?"

Smith looked at the keypad while Looking Glass, all intrigued now, stood behind him. Smith scanned the numbers, paused, and then punched in the code. The door swung open, Min slapped Smith's shoulder, and, with the group inside, the door closed again.

Smith ended up not working there. Otherwise, it's a perfect story.

In Looking Glass' System Shock, the code to open the first door is 451. A novel allusion, obviously, to Fahrenheit 451. What does it mean beyond that? That Looking Glass wears their influences on their sleeve? Maybe that the ambiance of System Shock finds commonality with the paranoia and totalitarianism of Bradbury's nightmarish horrorscape? Perhaps that the A.I. SHODAN represents the homogenizing progression of technology? I think it means that at least one of the System Shock designers took a high school English class.

In 1999, players in the sequel to System Shock passed through a door with the keycode 45100. Deus Ex, 2000, opened up an armory to players who knew the code: 0451. BioShock, 2007, left the means of entry to a door written on a scrap of paper obscured by boxes and audio diaries: 0451.

Open a door through the rote entry of numbers. 4. 5. 1. It's familiar. It's tradition. It's muscle memory. And the connotations it once had are absent.

the temperature at which
book-paper catches fire and burns

In 2008, what does it mean? That Fahrenheit 451 is an overwhelmingly relevant inspiration to the creative direction of minds like Smith, Spector and Levine? Not really. Is it that, in retrospect, Looking Glass utilised a horribly transparent security system? Gamers mock those games' conceit of scattering highly sensitive passwords around in the form of immediately accessible datacubes and audio logs, but in light of this new information, Looking Glass probably did that in real life.

By the time players find 0451 waiting for them in the Medical Pavilion, it means something else than what it did in 1994. It means something else than it did when Guy Montag walked home in the moonlight alongside a sixteen year old girl named Clarisse McClellan, with skin the colour of snow, and pointed to the embroidered '451' upon his sleeve, then asked her: "Well, doesn't this mean anything to you?"

It doesn't mean what it meant to them. To us, 0451 is now like the tattoo on a marine's arm. It's been used exclusively in this video game bloodline. 0451 is not some off-hand reference that's public domain for any developer, like "giant enemy crab". There's a propriety to it. It stands for the evolution of an idea; for immortalising the fraternal origins of some very successful designers, and for signposts by which to chart the progress of a specific game design. They have subverted Bradbury's symbol of destruction into one of creation, and that in itself is something beautiful.

Like BioWare falling on its face recently, this is another of those arbitrarily-selected footnotes in gaming history. This is how I have elected to cover E3.

July 16, 2008

Vanity Academy

"I have dreams. Powerful, terrifying dreams, but they're more like... visions. Of the future, of the end of all things. I see the world; the sun; the stars, all spinning out of control in this strange -- pattern, I'm sure it's a pattern, it means something -- and I can see myself in those fragments of the cosmos. I see myself as a young man, in the village where I grew up, burned to ashes, I see my adopted father, and I see the faces of my murdered parents, and I know, somehow, that I am destined for something important.
   "But now the dreams are getting worse, more intense, and every night I wake up in terror. I feel as though each night the dream is coming ever closer and that eventually I must face it."
   The girl reached a slender hand across the table and laid it upon his. "I can't imagine from where you still find strength. You live with such horror, in such tragedy... but a beautiful tragedy; there is beauty to it also."
   Seth, comforted by her touch, looked up at the girl, a mournful blonde, and let out a heavy sigh. "I wonder sometimes if I can do it alone."
   "You're such a fucking liar."
   They both turned sharply to the guy three tables away. His name was Scott.
   "His parents are not dead," Scott said to the girl. "He lives on a trust fund because his dad owns a four-star hotel in the financial district."
   The blonde frowned; her grip on Seth's hand relaxing. Seth, a rabid-looking kid with a soulpatch, slouched in his chair a little.
   "The only dream this guy has ever had," Scott continued, "was to pick up a waitress and do coke off of her body. Last year? He finds this girl at the diner, decked out in piercings, you know, dyed hair, couldn't have been older than sixteen, and he brings her back home. Gets her naked on his bed and he starts doing lines on her stomach. Chopping them up with an actual razor blade, so, you know, real smart. Some of the coke falls into her belly button so he sticks his face in there and he's snorting and shaking around trying to get it all, like a pig digging aroud in a trough" -- Scott making the motion himself -- "and he's freaking out so much that he rips out her navel piercing. So that's your big dreamer, cold and naked with blood and blow all over his face."
   Now the girl withdrew her hand completely. Looked back and forth between the both of them, not sure what to think, then she stumbled getting out of the chair in her haste to leave. Seth thought about pursuing her or punching Scott, but, too depressed to do either, he just left.

It was midnight on a Wednesday, which contributed to Scott's irritability. He was sitting in the ornate library of the Silverheart Academy, a military boarding school whose curriculum included the paraphysical sciences. Students tapped into the dormant parts of their brains to activate telekinetic and regenerative powers. Typically, men and women left home at eighteen to train for five years at the secluded mountain academy, where they chose to specialise in weapons training, psychic abilities or smooth-talking diplomacy. These elite soldiers were then dispatched all over the world, tasked with highly dangerous missions. If you made a list of all the heroes who'd ever saved the world or galaxy, odds are they'd be ex-Silverheart.
   Scott's world, right then, revolved around his history midterm on Friday. The decrepit textbook that he'd now read three pages of was a library copy and had been solidly on loan for the preceding month. This piece of required reading was, as the professors often said, one of the only copies in existence. Suspicious, Scott had written to the publisher to confirm this and got back a terse form letter explaining that they had gone out of business for unspecified reasons. Scott had made a note of the peculiarity in his journal. The textbook recounted the legend of a mysterious, ancient race who walked the planet millennia before humanity, going on to prophecise their apocalyptic return. Scott might have cared under different circumstances, but the book was a thousand pages and the hatchet-faced librarian would only issue it to him for an hour.

People never made Scott sick until he got here. Seth; the vulture who snapped up Scott's textbook before he was done; the new mailman who yesterday had laughed in Scott's face. Scott, who'd turned red at the disrespect, almost beat him into the ground. He'd held back because mailman's laughter meant that he was the only person in the world who agreed with Scott that Silverheart Academy was a joke. It really shouldn't be: its halls were the halls of palaces, chiseled from marble; adorned with gold-rimmed portraits of famous Silverheart alumni, and populated, always, with uncommonly talented and earnest people.
   At one in the morning, Scott was the only one walking the halls, and he liked it that way. The uncommonly talented and earnest people at Silverheart made him want to stand outside and scream. Silverheart was a wonderfully prestigious institution that attracted the world's greatest egotists. They came here to be the best. Scott had no issue with ambition, but these kids weren't thinking about graduating top of their class. Everyone assumed, and they didn't have the dignity or the respect to do it privately, that one person amongst them was special. Given the storied history of Silverheart, its escalating tales of student bravery and adventure, they all assumed that one person would break away from the rest of the pack. That someone here had been chosen for a great adventure. Someone with a destiny. A hero. Everyone wanted to be that person.

Though already loosened, the weight of Scott's tie -- a uniform requirement -- became an irritant to him. As he paced down the hall, he dug his fingers into the cloth knot and, after tearing at it unsuccessfully, pulled the whole thing up over his collar and dropped it to the floor. He made a motion to smooth down his tousled hair but decided against it. Scott couldn't stand the self-importance. Or the posturing. Or any of them, so singularly interested as they were in remaking themselves in the image of God. Scott didn't like the attitude; how their presuming to be 'the one' gave them license to treat the rest of the world like objects; accessories to their own grand mission, like they had no will or ambition of their own. As if their only value to the hero was helping him kill grunts, or as a source of cheap sex. Scott didn't like the detached smirk he saw when he talked to them; the look that told him he was already forgotten. Most of all, he didn't like the depths to which they would sink in their attempts at ascension. Scott wasn't sure who they were trying to convince of their significance, but sometimes he had a pretty good idea.

The wall over Scott's right shoulder was bare. Tomorrow, a faculty member would come by to hang up a safety placard detailing evacuation procedures in case of fire. Fire exits would all be marked and the students reminded that they should form an orderly, single-file procession out of the building. Within minutes of the sign's placement, a student would steal and hide it. From their perspective, the real plan was to be the one person absent on assignment while a mysterious dark force raided the academy and burned it to the ground. The student would return, look horrified, and embark upon a quest to avenge the deaths of his classmates. The hypothetical about choosing which friend to save in a fire was not a moral quandary around Silverheart, but a self-contained punchline.

Scott stood outside the office of the resident psychologist, the unusually empty waiting room lit up pretentiously by the moonlight. Students were in and out of this office all day claiming some kind of mental impairment that distinguished them from the rest. It was tough, searching for that very specific aberrant-in-an-heroic-sort-of-way diagnosis. Every day the psychologist would sit there and listen to these kids competing for his attention. They cheerily disowned their parents to claim they were the descendant of a dead god; the last of a tainted bloodline. Some enterprising kids would get the doctor going for ten minutes about eating disorders, then look up in alarm, pretending that they'd lost their memory and couldn't remember what the doctor had just said. They would feign panic attacks, scream and punch the walls, their shirts damp from tears, about how they couldn't remember anything, not even their own name. That was a popular tactic. On this campus, a psych referral for amnesia was like going to the doctor who'd write a prescription for the medical marijuana clinic.

"I operate by a moral code. I make moral choices every day." Scott hadn't checked the mail. "It's the difference between good and evil," someone had told him once, "for instance, if a beggar asks me for one gold, I'm going to give him ten. If I defeat an enemy in combat and he asks for redemption? I'm going to give it to him. If a woman in my company feels an attraction towards me then I'm going to give her professional respect and all the time she needs to make her decision. This is how we make our stand in the fight against evil." Scott hated that. He had sat there listening to that guy, who clearly wanted it so bad. He'd wanted to hit him, wanted to tell him, you're not better than me. He unlocked his mailbox. A letter from his mother. His birth mother, for sure: Scott looked so much like both his unexceptional parents, no one would ever think he was adopted. There was something else in there, a single piece of paper folded in half. "YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN," it read -- heart skipped a beat -- "to enjoy low interest rates on your home or boat loan." Scott put both letters back and shut the door.

In his cramped dorm room, the window was wide open, the curtains danced against the wall, and his girlfriend was asleep on the bed. He liked Deanna because she had a smile and didn't care about being any good. Sometimes that was all he needed in a person.
   He decided not to turn the lights on.
   Slowly, Scott walked to her side and lightly put his hand on her shoulder. "Hey," he said, softly shaking her. "hey."
   Deanna stirred a little.
   Scott crouched beside the bed, faces almost touching now. "Hey. Deanna."
   Deanna, frowning, eyelids flickering, let out a grumble that ended in a question mark.
   "Hey," Scott whispered. Staring at her. "I'm special, right?"
   "Yeah, baby," she said, and she rolled back over, nuzzling into the pillow.
   After a minute, Scott stood up and crossed to the far side of the room, where he folded his arms across the windowsill. The breeze touched his face as he held his gaze dead even with the horizon. Then he sunk into a chair and he sat there until morning.

July 12, 2008


As the writer Richard Price is fond of quoting, God is not a second-rate novelist. A seemingly chaotic chain of events can easily best the manufactured story in a contest of who can hold the audience's attention. There are plenty of off-the-record moments and incidental vignettes in the history of video games that capture the story to an impossibly better degree than press releases and post-mortems, which reign nonetheless as official historical record. At the rate that video game reportage is progressing, it's going to be a long time before anyone compiles these stories in a work of actual journalism. They are there for the taking, though, buried in fan interviews and forums like NeoGAF and Quarter to Three.

Of these moments, a recent highlight is BioWare's press campaign for Dragon Age. The project is symbolic; it reaffirms BioWare's commitment to PC gaming and PC gamers with an epic adventure very much in the classic style of Baldur's Gate, and drawing on the likes of George R. R. Martin for inspiration. Since the game was originally announced, Jade Empire and Mass Effect came and went, and other than reiterating Dragon Age's Q1 2009 ship date, BioWare released no new information after a preview that appeared in the December 2006 issue of Games for Windows magazine.

Last Monday, BioWare put up a teaser image for Dragon Age on the game's website. Finally, it hinted, on July 9th, a Wednesday, the curtain will be lifted. The style of the announcement was highly reminiscent of when Blizzard, two weeks prior, teased a mystery game for one week, gradually releasing more clues and counting down to the date of Blizzard's Worldwide Invitational in Paris, where they announced, to physical and virtual crowds of pent-up and antsy fans, the next Diablo game. This was accompanied by a CG trailer and a twenty-minute reel of annotated gameplay footage.

It may have been an unwise strategy for BioWare to invite direct comparisons by initiating their PR campaign exactly as Blizzard had, especially when their games were so similar. Dragon Age and Diablo III are the major PC RPGs, made by developers trading on their legacy as masters in the field. It was an attempt to control the media narrative and wrest the spotlight from Diablo. This is how it failed.

Blizzard revised their teaser image in a timely manner over the course of the week. BioWare's image did not change, although it promised the announcement within a shorter timespan. On July 9th, it intimated, Dragon Age would come back in focus. At the exact moment of midnight, July 9th, in Edmonton, Alberta, nothing happened. The image didn't change. Fans hit refresh while BioWare employees drove to work, sat in meetings, went to lunch and nothing happened. The image stayed the same, and every time zone in the world inched ever closer to the 10th.

On BioWare's forums, posters complained how they stayed up all night and weren't even rewarded with an underwhelming announcement. Community coordinator Chris Priestly, deftly coordinating the community against himself, threatened that "if" the update was even to happen, they would have to wait. Responding to what he apparently saw as fan impatience, he later posted: "So we can stop working on this then? Cool, thanks. That makes it much easier. Please let me know who else gives up, if enough of you have no patience I can send everyone home."

At around 5:00 PM EST, the update hit.

Dragon Age™: Origins, the highly anticipated dark fantasy epic from leading video game developer BioWare is set to be shown during E3 2008! Beginning with a world exclusive trailer on GameTrailers TV, airing this Friday night at 1:00 AM on Spike TV and Spike HD, fans will get their first look at Dragon Age™: Origins before it is shown to media during E3 2008, July 15-17. The trailer will be available in high definition after it airs on TV at www.gametrailers.com.

After eighteen months, this was how BioWare reintroduced Dragon Age to the public; as an hurried parent pushing their child out on stage with a cardboard sign reading "Origins" tied around their neck. The subtitle was an odd addition, possibly indicating that the game had been repackaged as episodic content or the first installment in a trilogy. Either way, it was a generic subtitle added to a generic title that, less than a year away from release, gamers had no reason to believe was anything but generic.

Impatience became irateness, and Priestly responded as if he had just pulled off a magic trick: "If there was no teaser page, would you be here now?" he added. "Sure, you're complaining, but you're here. And, since you are here, I consider that a success."

Priestly commented later: "Sorry you got your expectations up too high. Personally, after almost 4 years of no news at all, I think that revealing the name, the logo and having a video coming out shortly is a darned fine way to kick off the game." Lead designer David Gaider joined in, defending the amount of content that BioWare had chosen to release: "To me, this seems like a lot-- but apparently people were expecting some kind of dog and pony show, with big tops. Who knew?" Before the announcement, Priestly had been taunting the community by rick-rolling them. Gaider recommended that posters "untwist the panties". They stopped before resorting to other popular internet tactics like the "Internet. Serious Business" image and calling their forum members fags.

With diminished enthusiasm, gamers waited until Friday for the debut trailer, again, staying up past midnight to do so. Promoting their "world exclusive" (after it aired on television) GameTrailers' Geoff Keighley touted that the trailer was rendered entirely in-engine. At 1:00 AM, BioWare, with the cinematic Mass Effect under their belt, continued to "kick off the game" with the following:

An enthused Keighley then reminded gamers to look for the second trailer on Sunday, which, apparently, is merely a different cut of the above.

When it comes to PR, BioWare, unfortunately, are second-rate novelists. In trying to write an engaging media narrative, the mistakes and fumbled opportunities along the way simply made for a better story: the story of how they were so dramatically unable to hype their game and to control fan response. Compared to Blizzard's orgasm, they instead let out a wet fart. When the story of Dragon Age is written, that will not be a prominently-featured anecdote. It won't change the world and in the long term it probably won't change how people think about Dragon Age or BioWare. This is the most recent chapter in their biographies, but that book will be revised again and again with new information until it tells a story that's slight and stand-alone and -- if they don't support the theme of the narrative -- free of aberrations like this one. But it's too good to forget. It deserves to be told.

July 10, 2008

The Spy Who Loved Me

James Bond got a free pass on being a misogynist. It probably irritated the harder-working lotharios not blessed with the ability to slap the girls to make 'em swoon, but Bond had no reason to care. He got the girls no matter who he offended, so why bother pretending to be something he wasn't? He was, indeed, a sexist. It was easier for him to act like it. So why did we let him off the hook? Well, for one, we thought he was cool, and -- here comes rationalisation -- he was born in an age and a culture of institutionalised misogyny, and the passage of time has desensitised us to antiquated excesses.

It's the same reason why Diablo doesn't seem as weird today as maybe it should. In 1996 it wasn't as curious a design decision for Blizzard to build a supermodel-level game entirely on repetitive and reductionist combat. The game is a point-and-click Space Invaders, with attack, parry, thrust, defend, shoot, reload, zoom, alt fire, holster weapon, duck, strafe, dodge, walk, talk, blink, breathe all mapped to the left mouse button. Click click click on lots of monsters, and that's Diablo; that's carpal tunnel syndrome. Combat like this would be a relic in any game on a similar production scale, if not for that once upon a time Diablo was very successful and spawned a franchise and imitators based on that singular mechanic. Today, amongst Gears and Gods of War; varied and multi-layered combat systems that provide the player with an ever-expanding array of input and feedback options, evidently there's still a place for Diablo.

Diablo has fans, Blizzard has their money, and thus Diablo 3 can be absurdly simple to play. If another major title, carrying with it a level of hype comparable to Diablo 3, came out and it was click click click? Disaster. Diablo has nostalgia, and it has a pass. Diablo-clones can get a pass too, but they'll never be the real thing. Titan Quest and Hellgate: London never generated as much affection as Diablo 2 and as much enthusiasm as Diablo 3. They're merely filling a void, and now the dark lord has returned to claim his throne. Nobody does it half as good as him.

It has an exemption, and so it is to gameplay what Metal Gear Solid is to narrative. More accurately, Metal Gear Solid is to cutscenes what Diablo is to monotony.

Metal Gear grew up in the pre-Half-Life era of high cutscene tolerance. Now, they're in the process of being eradicated completely. Tearing down Metal Gear Solid for its cutscene length is a tired grievance these days, and in leveraging the "genius" of Hideo Kojima, it's an easily deflected critique.

Still, put anyone with a broad gaming literacy in front of Metal Gear Solid for the first time and they'll be stunned. They'll have the same reaction when they see Diablo. There's so many mouse clicks. There's so many cutscenes. These games were designed in a vacuum where contemporary design sensibility never applied. How did they get away with this? How are they still doing this?

Indulgent cutscene length is another instant black mark for any game -- other than Metal Gear Solid. Kojima's impenetrable brilliance and pretensions are backed up by tradition, and a fanbase that will not only accept Kojima's idiosyncrasies but defend them. Metal Gear Solid gets players in any event, so why should Kojima bother pretending he's something he's not? His writing is repetitive, it is expository, it is ridiculous, but he can get away with that storytelling model while no other game can. Kojima's specific insanity has been endowed with the success of a Blizzard, and so he is granted the freedom to choose his own adventure.

Makes you feel sad for the rest. No one else can do what Kojima or Blizzard does, and what those two are doing is actually easier. Diablo's combat is as elementary as it gets. CliffyB can have all the paintball battlefield inspiration he wants, but Diablo, the anachronism machine, will remain a strong competitor. Meanwhile, other developers -- Valve, 2K -- are just as interested in telling a story as Kojima is, but without a history of lengthy cutscenes, they're stuck operating within modern narrative structures and gamer preferences. The preferences which say gamers don't care about cutscenes unless they're Hideo Kojima's. Marc Laidlaw and Ken Levine have to puzzle out a way to tell a story that doesn't wrench control from the player. It's easier to write a story as a screenplay than as audio fragments scattered around the architecture of a first-person-shooter. Kojima takes full advantage of his position; augmenting his epic saga with all the pseudo-science footnotes he wants. Like many have said, Kojima could use an editor, but no one's going to make him get one. For a writer like Kojima, the easiest setting is verbosity. Such is Kojima's luck that he gets to do what's easy.

Does it irritate the competition? Cover systems and squad AI can take months of work but click click click is a guaranteed hit? Perhaps it does. But when you look at why Kojima and Diablo are able to subsist at their most comfortable, it's because they never failed. They have the right to be nonconformists but they don't use it to make bad games. They never lost their audience. Never lost the critics, never lost the money, and never lost the right to ignore anyone who told them "no".

Kojima tells engrossing, emotional tales even though they're bizarre melodrama. It might be an unfairly discriminating set of circumstances that let him do so, but at that kind of intricate saga, he's the very best. Diablo's genius lies in its simplicity, as it translates to just one more monster addiction. They don't need to modernise it because everyone's already hooked. They trade on nostalgia, sure. But they'll never, ever betray those memories. They'll never stop reminding you of what you like about them. Diablo can stay conservative and Kojima can stay insane and they'll keep you coming home. Why?

Nobody does it better.

July 6, 2008


[Hey, you can read this post at Gamasutra and GameSetWatch. Radical! Thanks to Simon Carless et al. for republishing it.]

Pretend this is the final post.

In video games, the ones that tell the player a long, linear story, the ending is usually an uncertain proposition. Prose and film teach an audience to expect three-act structures and considered pacing in storytelling. Instead, games have what Warren Spector calls the second-act problem; where act one is the intro movie, act three is the outro movie, and in between is the game. Games are structured less like a novel and more like an anthology; an arbitrary number of assembled vignettes, thematically united in post-production. A collection of missions and quests that exist because one designer had a cool idea for a boat chase sequence and another designer had an awesome idea for a stealth mission. It's a problem of pacing, and it relates directly to the presupposed need for games to have fifteen-hour narratives.

I think this issue is compounded by another: players don't know how long a game is. You can hold a novel in your hands and feel the weight of the pages. An album has its track listing printed on the back. A television season consists of a predetermined number of episodes with those episodes at a fixed length. A movie is somewhere between 90 and 180 minutes. No such guidelines with video games. They lack an intuitive metric: it'll fall between one and one hundred hours.

If players don't know when to expect the real ending then they'll have to guess. Maybe after this mission in GTA we'll get to the endgame. Wait, no, one more thing. One more thing after that. With these interminable games that try for an engrossing narrative, players just get tired. Will it ever actually end?

Fallout is based on the premise that the player must find this water chip. It takes a long time, it's an exhausting journey, you find it and return home victorious. And then... one more thing... and you're actually only halfway through.

Objectively, there's nothing wrong with the content. But expectations frame experience, and the game had just prepared the player to say goodbye, not to enjoy another ten hours. Having to take a game at its word, players feel betrayed and jerked around. We react to a piece of content differently if we know it's the ending. When we watch the season finale of a TV show, we know that this time the characters are really in danger. With a video game the player has no idea. Is this thing going to go on for another hour? Or five? Or ten? Where the hell am I in this story? I'm not sure many developers are aware that this can be a problem; like how Ken Levine has said he didn't anticipate the ugly comedown from the stratospheric highs of BioShock's Andrew Ryan scene.

Expectations are everything. The movie Gone, Baby, Gone has a fake ending at about the 70-minute mark, but the audience doesn't start leaving the theater. They know how long a movie is and they're mentally prepared for the remainder of the film. I don't think Fallout players would be as bummed out if they found the water chip at the 70-minute mark. But no one knows how long Fallout is, like how no one knows if Return of the King's running time is three hours and two minutes or three hours and four minutes. The movie continues long past the point where anyone was interested.

One more thing. One more mission, one more quest, one more rung in a ladder carved from monotony and you have only the vaguest of assurances that the ladder ever stops. I wonder why people don't finish games.

Oblivion's core story is paced terribly, which is to say it's paced like a video game. One more thing. One more lost object to find. That's at least consistent with Oblivion's general M.O. as a treasure-hunting smorgasbord, and Mass Effect doesn't handle that dichotomy nearly so well; instead redefining 'sidequest' as a repetitive grind existing at the periphery of the story. BioWare dumps a whole lot of extra content on the player for the purposes of making Mass Effect long enough to count as a conventional video game. It dilutes the tightly focused, very linear narrative that they're trying to showcase. It's also why games like GTA that measure game completion with a percentage stat don't really work, since it can take players five times as long to get from 76% to 77% as it can from 1% to 2%.

Subquests aside, Mass Effect is able to manage player expectations of length. After act one, you get on the spaceship and you're given a certain number of planets to visit. Those are goalposts; checkpoints by which the player can measure their progress in the second act, and theoretically the third act should be as long as the first. See? Easy. Knights of the Old Republic did that, Monkey Island 2 did that. No unpleasant surprises and the player is never unintentionally misled through poor design.

Some games telegraph their length with exceptional results. Right up front, Portal tells you: 19 rooms. Indeed there are, and so the player never thinks that room 15 might actually be a plot-critical gameplay escalation instead of a puzzle chamber. Portal continues after 19, of course, but here it works. It capitalises on the players' perception that the game is over; the "epilogue" comes as an intentional surprise more of the same. When you anticipate player psychology as Valve clearly does, then you can work with it.

You know how everyone in the world is able to pinpoint the exact moment that A.I. should have ended? Spielberg kept telling the viewer "one more thing", and the more times he said it, the worse the movie got. Unless you're Portal, unless you know what you're doing, when players think a game is ending, they should be right. If a game prompts players to say goodbye, then, one way or another, they will.

July 2, 2008

Water Disappointed

"I must say I am disappointed that Blizzard has stayed on the conservative side in terms of design with their updates to Diablo and Starcraft."

"'Disappointed.' That comment, made earlier this morning by Bethesda producer Ashley Cheng, was discovered within hours by internet bloggers and quickly republished on message boards and podcasts.

"It's being speculated that this surprisingly frank admission from Mr. Cheng may prove commercially damaging to Fallout 3 when gamers go to the stores in October. Certainly, we've seen this happen to products in the past. Tommy, and thank you for being with us now, Tommy, we still have not -- no -- still no comment from Pete Hines at Bethesda, but many are anticipating the developer will formally denounce Mr. Cheng and his statement later today.

"This story is still breaking. We will keep you updated throughout the rest of the day on Mr. Cheng's gaffe, a story which some in the media are now terming 'Waterdisappointed', in reference of course to the Watergate, President Nixon scandal of 1971. Now, Tommy, and again, we thank you for joining us live today, the question I want to ask you, and that our viewers, I imagine, must be asking themselves right now: is Ashley Cheng the man that the public wants producing Fallout 3?"