April 29, 2009

Chaos Theory

As long as there's a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I am able to plan a day like this: Rod Humble lecture, visit to Alcatraz, Jason Rohrer lecture. That was my Tuesday at GDC. Sometimes you need to take a break from games for a while and go to a prison.

Alcatraz used to be a pretty grim scene. Tour highlights include the spot where the suicidal leapt into the ocean and dashed their brains on the rocks, and the hallway where inmates and guards shot and killed one another. The floor tiles are still marred from grenade blasts. A place like this commands a certain solemnity. There should be a threshold of decorum here. Overly cheery tour guides who use the words "cell house", "recreation yard" and "all that good stuff" in the same sentence might be slightly over that line. An Alcatraz gift shop that sells The Rock on DVD is probably over that line. The former inmate who sits miserably in the middle of that gift shop trying to sign copies of his memoir, looking like the loneliest old man in the world, that's borderline. Wandering around the island pointing out how similar everything is to video games... definitely over the line.

For instance, take the audio tour of the Alcatraz cell house. The tour designers have carved out a linear route through the building, and for twenty minutes, you listen to a voice directing you to hit your marks while also trying to communicate the history of Alcatraz. "Turn left," it says, "take five steps forward, look at cell 32, look to your right, turn right -- turn left -- turn left immediately!" It's like the worst kind of scripted video game, which sacrifices any illusion of meaningful interactivity or autonomy in favour of brusquely ushering you down a narrative corridor.

It's sort of a gruff and impatient voice. Games are never that rude. Games prefer to pretend that the player's in charge, but ultimately the game can always seize back control through a cutscene or locked camera. In Alcatraz, I enjoy a much greater freedom of movement -- ironically -- so to make sure I stay focused on the subject at hand, maybe the tour designers feels that they need to be mean to me.

The tour's use of art assets is particularly cost-effective. Every individual object in the cell house is deliberately placed to convey a specific story point. The only furnished cells, with folded laundry on the bed and watercolours on the wall, were not arranged like that for decoration but to specifically inform you about the prisoners' amenities. When you see the cell with a hole in the wall, it's because you're about to hear about that escape attempt. The only cells that you can walk into are the ones that are dark, empty and intended to evoke panic attacks in the claustrophobic. If it's unique, it has a purpose; the rest of the environment is generic texture.

Besides the narration, the audio tape incorporates short monologues by both prisoners and guards. These recordings, of people who are probably long since dead, function as historical artefacts and ad hoc recurring characters. They convey important plot details or, for colour, the mundanities of Alcatraz living. Alcatraz has audio diaries.

The Alcatraz tour is an unbroken one-way circuit, dictated by the guidance of a husky narrator. The fatal flaw is that you never have to obey the narrator's instruction. A video game might kill the player or throw up an invisible wall; in the Alcatraz cell house you can head off in any direction that you like. That's similar, in theory, to the open worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Fallout: games with a main quest by which completion is measured, but a plethora of side content that players can explore at their leisure.

In Grand Theft Auto, you can opt out of the main quest for as long as you like. In Alcatraz, however, unless you actively pause the tape, or if you misunderstand the instructions, then it doesn't realise and the narration will continue. It doesn't have a contingency plan for the tourist getting lost. You can wander off the set, forget your lines, and the tour is not aware enough to recognise your transgression. Bad scripting.

The tour is a single-player experience. You might be surrounded by other people, but you do not interact with them and as soon as you strap on your headphones, you're isolated in your own instance of the tour. It speaks directly to you, and as it's telling you about the echoes of raucous New Year's Eve parties that carried across the bay to drive the prisoners insane, you forget about the people around you. Although you can grief the other players if you want, and impose yourself upon their experience in ways unintended by the designers. For example, catch someone's eye, say "this tour's pretty stupid, isn't it?" and then make out in the warden's office.

The tour, like all single-player games, is actually a shared experience. The author, or the game, is never talking solely to you. It's related this same spiel to thousands of others and will continue to do so long after your horrible death. For all the effect that it pretends you have on the world, everyone else has already taken their turn at being the hero. When Bastila says she loves you, she doesn't mean you. The Alcatraz cell house tour is what it would be like if the ghosts of previous players started showing up in your single-player game. You're all moving down an identical path, but all out of sync and scattered around the location at different points in the chronology. The Wikipedia page on Alcatraz claims that the prison is famously haunted. They probably don't mean like this.

I returned my headphones and tape to the disaffected teenage tour guide minding the exit, and I thought about asking him if he realised, you know, the similarities the last twenty minutes have to level design theory, and social dynamics in MMOs, and non-linear open worlds, and all that good stuff? But if he doesn't know already, someday he'll play Half-Life 2, and he'll see for himself.

[Photos thanks to Siorna McFarlane.]

April 26, 2009

Domestic Terminal

Earlier this year, I'm tired and sprawled out in an airport lounge waiting for a plane to take me home. Sitting nearby is a young boy who's intensely focused on the DS game that he's playing. What first gets my attention is that whatever game this is, it uses the generic "video game" sound effects that appear in every movie and TV show.

The second thing is that the kid's mother, who looks to be in her early thirties, is watching the game over his shoulder. She frequently asks him about what each enemy and power-up does. She offers suggestions about what powers her son should deploy to take care of a monster. What quickly becomes apparent about this woman is that she is really trying. Video games are not native to her, and she is learning a second language to better communicate with her son -- who, for the entire duration of this scene, never actually says a word.

I can relate to the experience of being raised primarily by a single parent, but not one that took any interest in the games that I was playing. Where I grew up, everybody over the age of thirteen seemed to consider video games a passing (and entirely incomprehensible) adolescent distraction. Nobody thought people would build their careers around video games or attend video game conferences and deliver lectures about intentionality versus improvisation, readability or iterative level design. Even us thirteen-year-olds didn't really think that stuff happened. We all ended up very surprised.

What if my parents had understood video games like I did? Would I have been able to connect with them on a deeper level, or was I actually glad to have games all to myself and my generation? If they had tried to involve themselves like this single mother in the airport, would I have bristled at the interference and ultimately not enjoyed games so much?

I don't remember that far back, but this boy probably knows, and so I study his face for clues. He's really absorbed in a jumping puzzle, though, and I can't figure it out.

April 21, 2009

There Goes A Diaspora

My strongest memories of the Game Developers Conference this year actually have very little to do with video games. This is discouraging. Instead, I mostly have stories like the one below.

On Monday afternoon -- my third day back in San Francisco -- I caught a bus from Haight-Ashbury back to my hotel in Union Square. I'm sitting opposite an African-American woman in her 40s who soon gets a cellphone call from who appears to be her daughter. They chat casually for a while about everyday things, and the mother nods and mm-hms her way through the call before just as casually leading into "Did you get high today? Did you get high? That's good, see, that's a start. Three days, you're getting there. I'm proud of you." Then she says goodbye and hangs up.

She gets off the bus shortly after that, and her seat and the surrounding area are suddenly occupied by a couple of white and massively-hipster high school kids who have been out shopping for records and neat posters. They're heading home to Berkeley and they discuss vegan fudge, Facebook, prom and Rock Band. I wasn't looking at my watch but they were talking for about nine hours. And somewhere out there is that mother and her daughter the recovering addict, focus-tested out of existence.

The rest of the week at GDC, I kept wondering who I was in that metaphor. Am I replacing someone or am I getting replaced?

I could very well be the new media, print-is-dead, cult-of-the-amateur firebrand who is indirectly contributing to the web 2.0 uprising that's driving newspapers and magazines out of business. People like me might possibly be as alarming to print journalists as a teenage biker gang terrorizing a retirement home. We're high-speed, chain-wielding maniacs and we've come to destroy you.

Alternatively, maybe I'm the one getting pushed to the sidelines. At GDC, I'm surrounded by people who have graduated to working in games professionally and I'm the only one who still hasn't got there and will probably never go there at all. GDC serves as a visual reminder of my extreme superfluousness to the game industry. Maybe I'm the dead weight. Maybe I should be getting off the bus.

GDC can seem like a community in flux. In a year, some of the people who are covering the show as press will be the ones making games; today's developers will be overlooked for the indie guys who are making better games for free; and soon all of them will probably be laid off. GDC itself cruises through San Francicso, attracting thousands of different people from different disciplines to the Moscone Center like moths to a flame, and on Friday they rapidly disperse to the four corners of the world. Sometimes, before you can figure out where you fit in to all of that, it's gone.

On my first day in San Francisco, I walked with my friends down a street and past a woman who was standing on the steps of her row house. "There goes a diaspora," she said. I don't know what that meant.

April 13, 2009

After Hours

You sit at the bar, poised over a vodka martini. You don't know what goes in a vodka martini other than vodka, but you ordered it as if you did. The place is decorated in warm neon lights, and jazz riffs carry down the room past women in silk dresses. Your parents always warned you about jazz clubs. You survey the crowd, knowing that all these faces tell a story, but all of the faces that you can see look like their stories would be pretty boring. Just in case, you keep a hand on your iPhone, tucked away in the pocket of your journalist trenchcoat. You are beginning to think that the coat store man lied, and that there is no such thing as a journalist trenchcoat.

A tall man leans over your shoulder, flashing you a row of perfect white teeth. He wants to know your name. After ordering you a second drink, he inches closer and says he has a hotel room across the street. He asks if you want to come and see a press demo. You play it cool; smile and say sure.

There is a computer already set up at the desk, alongside a bowl of chocolate chip cookies. The man sits you down in front of the monitor and asks you what you think of the graphics. You say they're impressive. You shoot some guys on the screen for a little bit and compliment the engine and AI mechanics. The man notes something on a clipboard. He says this is all good feedback. When you reach the end of the level, you ask to see more. He apologises, saying he has another appointment. As he ushers you out the door, he gives you a t-shirt and a sticker and says he looks forward to your written impressions.

You wake up in the backseat of a convertible parked in your ex's garage. You decide to stop drinking.

April 9, 2009

End Of History

I have a younger brother, who, last year, pointed to my bookshelf and said: "The Witcher, I've heard of that." At that time my brother was still in high school and didn't play very many games, so I asked him how he could possibly know what The Witcher is. He said that this is the game all his friends are talking about. Nothing against The Witcher, but in what universe do high school boys care more about a Polish CRPG than Gears of War 2 or Rock Band? Apparently it's this universe, which makes me feel confused and alone. You can make certain assumptions about how the next generation will be different, but here they are evolving along a completely unexpected track. I no longer understand anything of the world beneath my age bracket.

Around the time of this conversation, I went into a game store and overheard two nine-year-old kids talking about how casual games are ruining the industry. I assume that at some point these kids found out what NeoGAF was and believed that they had stumbled upon the inner sanctum and, overnight, had become industry experts and also cooler than all their friends. From a purely intellectual perspective, it shouldn't be surprising that today's nine-year-olds are forming their impressions of the industry entirely from the most sensationalistic sites on the internet. Cultural touchstones are exchanged for newer versions as a matter of course: Kotaku replaces Usenet replaces Electronic Gaming Monthly as a teenager's conduit for gaming hipness.

It's still easy to be disorientated at how fast everything changes and relevance diminishes. Kids growing up on Joystiq is unsettling for the same reasons as it is to imagine those same high school kids with Twitter accounts. That's where social interaction and romances are playing out for 15-year-olds: on Twitter, Facebook, and maybe LinkedIn, who knows. The generations who conducted awkward teenage relationships via nervous phone calls and love letters look at their children and think: what the fuck is all this? Where's the legitimacy and innocence in a relationship borne of cyberspace nudges and pokes? We had to do it the hard way. It's a shame that technology advances at such a rate that our children will never understand what we were forced to put up without the luxuries that they currently burn through. Incidentally, I think every person reaches a milestone in their life when they begin to identify with the dad from Calvin & Hobbes who talked about how shoveling snow builds character.

We have a desire, I think, to preserve our own experiences, to prove that they were worth experiencing in the first place. Otherwise, everything that made our lives meaningful ends up forgotten. This is why pretty much anyone born in the last ten years will be told by their parents to disregard everything they've learned about the numerical system and accept that the Star Wars movies start with the fourth one. If we can pass on anything to our kids, it's knowledge like that.

It's hard enough to recommend Star Wars when it's constantly being retroactively altered, and classic albums whose reissues conclude not as originally intended but with a collection of forgettable bonus tracks that were left on the cutting room floor for a reason. Recommending a video game to the younger generation is harder still. Not only because it's increasingly difficult to run old games on available hardware, or that graphics age painfully fast. When games are increasingly tied to narrative campaigns and individual experiences, recommending Deus Ex means something different than a recommendation for chess. Even if players get the former running, odds are they won't play the game the way you did and so, consequently, they aren't playing it right. When they play the game as a shooter they've abandoned all the reasons why it was so memorable for us as a stealth game, or whatever.

To pass down video games is to live vicariously through someone else's playthrough. Whenever I made my younger brother play a game that I liked, I would get so frustrated at how he wasn't getting it right, or would miss every possible hidden room in a level. His experience wasn't the one that I recommended; how could he get it so wrong? I'm the oldest of two brothers, so that's the only role I know: yelling over his shoulder like an English teacher, turning play into work.

He doesn't understand what I saw in these games in the first place, and probably never will. In the future, he will understand what it's like to have Peggle streamed to him intraveneously while riding a hoverboard and also wearing some cool sunglasses. He won't, however, be able to convince his son or daughter that that was ever considered fun.

I'll never get to know what that's like. And that's fine, because it sounds stupid.

April 5, 2009

Life Of The Party

[The following article was published on GameSetWatch about a month ago. This Anniversary Reprint Edition features an exclusive new story by Marek Bronstring. And some pictures, too.

Marek Bronstring: Mostly, you see publishers from the outside and people who pitch to them always complain about the long process of getting a publisher signed up to something. It's interesting to see the other side a little bit. This executive got a call from a friend of his, a pitch call. This friend said, "okay, I'm gonna give the phone to my brother now, his name is Mario."

Mario got on the phone and said "...look, here's the deal: I'm probably the best Elvis impersonator in the UK. I want a game about me. Well, about Elvis, but I should be in it." So that was weird in itself but then the exec was like, "okay, whatever, let's hear the pitch."

And Mario the Elvis impersonator was like "...what do you mean? Aren't you the publisher? I thought you could come up with the game ideas for it."]

Last week, [man, this piece dated fast! -- Duncan] Kotaku claimed that more than 20 people lost their jobs when Obsidian Entertainment's Aliens RPG was cancelled. Though not confirmed, no one should have to look for any other reasons why that report was bad news. Selfishly, perhaps, I thought of some anyway.

Very little was ever said about the Aliens RPG, but I'm sure that I would have played it, regardless of whether it now gets completed. I've found that Obsidian Entertainment, compared to every other developer that makes party-based RPGs, has consistently had the most interesting and forward-thinking ideas about party members and dynamics, whether in games that I like (Knights of the Old Republic II) or ones that I don't (Neverwinter Nights 2).

If RPG parties don't seem like a design element fraught with weakness, consider games like Knights or Mass Effect wherein your character faces the greatest conceivable evil in the universe, but isn't allowed to take more than two people along to fight it.

No game fiction has ever made a convincing argument for why the world's biggest hero can't deal with having three guys around at once. Restrictions on party members are a tech limitation, presumably; in the isometric Baldur's Gate days, the limit was five. Still, there were always more characters available, so why not six? Why not seven? What can they possibly be doing that's more important than saving the world?

I think gamers largely recognise it as an issue of engine capacity or gameplay balance, but that doesn't make it any less of a logical flaw. Whenever the player character meets an exciting new person, he should never have to lamely respond "I'd love to have you on board, but I don't have room."

Party members haven't aged very well conceptually. Games used to present them solely as stat amplifiers and combat assists, but even as they developed voice acting and subplots and became love interests they still seem more often than not like accessories instead of personalities.

If it wasn't so steeped in familiar RPG convention, it would surely seem bizarre that party members, upon their initial meeting with you, sign on to your cause and then hang out inactive at your headquarters forever after you decide they're no good in fights.

Why would anyone be so content to be relegated to the background and how can they afford to put their lives on hold? No hero's that charismatic. Maybe in the future all RPG protagonists should be eccentric billionaires who hire random pedestrians to carry their bags; it would explain a lot.

The closer RPGs approximate our own reality, the less plausible this comes off. It's passable in fantasy worlds where nobody has a job other than tavern owner or blacksmith, but when placed against the near-future military backdrop of BioWare's Mass Effect, certain conventions become absurd.

The commander is required to buy munitions from his subordinates and, on a whim, appoints as his closest advisors and ground team foreign nationals and volunteers who never passed a security check and are happy not getting paid. If you're in line for a promotion on the good ship Mass Effect, twenty years of service doesn't cut it next to a mysterious alien with a past.

With every game they've made in the last six years, BioWare have moved closer towards a cinematic style of storytelling, an more immediate combat model and away from traditional CRPG artifice. Except they're still encouraging players to accumulate characters as extra abilities and then leave them in the engine room, forgotten.

Obsidian writer/designer Chris Avellone addressed this point ten years ago when he worked at Black Isle Studios. In Planescape: Torment, a disparate cast of characters, in the usual fashion, abandon their everyday routine to support a stern, violent and naked man with more tattoos than memory.

For once, this is remarked upon as odd. In a denouement equivalent to a detective gathering all the murder suspects in the parlour room, the Torment party members' motivations and histories are all revealed to be deeper than originally apparent. Given their specific, tragic circumstances, they had no choice but to follow him when he asked.

Knights of the Old Republic II echoed that scene. One of the game's principal features was its influence system. Players gained influence with their companions by performing actions that they endorsed, which unlocked additional dialogue options.

Avellone works this mechanic into the story, explaining that the main character is in fact so aberrantly charismatic that he exerts a metaphysical influence on people which compels them to do crazy things like join his party and fight on his behalf. He is therefore dangerous and must be stopped.

Neverwinter Nights 2 players don't have the same luck. In that game some party members will quit or switch sides based on the level of influence the player has with them. Most will leave over ideological disagreements, but at least one person will side with the enemy at a critical moment if the player didn't put her in the party enough or give her any cool armour or weapons.

It might not be convincing that she'd want to kill her former friend based on that grievance, but it's a pretty accurate indictment of typical RPG player behaviour. I never selected that character precisely because I did think she was useless, and games have conditioned me to think that she wouldn't have a problem with that.

In Knights II, Obsidian had players take direct control of their supplicants for solo missions, and the full cast featured in their own cutscene-driven subplots. Neverwinter Nights 2 treated its concluding battle with appropriate gravity by allowing the players control of their entire party. Obsidian granted those secondary characters greater presence with each successive game -- until removing them entirely in their upcoming spy RPG, Alpha Protocol.

Alpha Protocol has one controllable character and no permanent party members. Maybe it's a deliberate change of pace for Obsidian, or maybe it's the best solution of all. Alpha Protocol will certainly be free from deadbeats and hangers-on who admonish you for acts of kindness but will still do whatever you say. The best way to deal with those plausibility issues is not to invite them into the design in the first place. It'll work, but because it's the safe option.

If it marks the beginning of a new approach for Obsidian, then I'll miss the subversion and the experimentation. Developers can craft a character with a wealth of personal history, trust issues and the potential for an ice-thawing courtship, and they can have them try to kill me for not buying them shoes. I like the second option more.